Billy Joel’s song Vienna touched my heart the first time I heard it. I was fourteen and I heard it on the local radio station, unaware of who he was and that his music had been around long enough for my father to enjoy it. His opening lines, the first verse, drew me in as much as the upbeat rhythm and the beautiful piano music. I was a teenage girl. Cheesy pop music was just my thing. Every kid listening to music one day feels as if a song was written just for them. I was no different. I thought Billy Joel was addressing me personally when he sang,
“Slow down you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart, tell me why
Are you still so afraid?”
That was me. That is me still, if I am being honest.
I always had plans. I wanted to master everything. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to be the best. Every year, when my friends and I received our grade reports, mine had to be the best in our class. When I graduated high school, I needed to at least be in the top five in the academic ranking of my year. My world would have collapsed if I had not come in third. It was how I identified myself as a teenager. I was never particularly pretty or funny or interesting. I was the chubby girl with the dorky friends and the really good grades. It made me happy to be considered intelligent and to succeed where others failed.
This goes out to all the high school students out there.
I’m one of the people who seem so evil to you. I’m one of the people who make your life miserable every day. I’m one of the people who are meant to make you smarter and raise you into well-adjusted and mature members of society.
I’m a teacher.
I’m still young. I’m still at the beginning of my career. And I’m still trying to make the world a better place.
But this is me asking for some lenience.
School is hard, not just for you. It’s a difficult environment for teachers too. There a curricula, laws, rules, educational standards, money issues, and societal expectations to keep in mind. There are people who have never stood in front of a group of students who think they know my job better than I know it. There are politicians who blame teachers for everything that is wrong with the country, with society, and with future generations. There is a lot of resentment towards teachers because they have the summer off, because they get to always have the last word in class, and because everyone has had to go to school once and likely did not succeed all the time.
Teachers feel this pressure just like students feel peer pressure. We feel it like you feel your parents’ expectations. And we struggle to do right all the time like you struggle to succeed in exams.
I believe, if we stuck together, students and teachers, we would all be happier.
I want to help you. I want to inspire you. I want to be a role model for you.
But I need you to accept me first.
Take my hand and I’ll hold yours through the best grades and the lowest. I promise I won’t let go. I’ll hold on until you’ve found a place in life after school.
Let’s look beyond what we don’t see.
Let’s work together.
Let’s succeed together.
I don’t cry often. I don’t even cry every once in a while. I cry rarely. I cry when I watch a movie with a sad ending where the music gets to me. I cry when a book has a sad ending that builds and builds and lasts for tens of pages. I cry when I’m desperately angry with someone for screwing my life in a way that puts too much pressure on me and demands that I know what to do next. I don’t cry when other people cry or when I have to say goodbye or when someone I love has died.
My tears only ever fall for selfish reasons and I want someone to understand this. I finally want someone in my life that will take those tears and help me fight them. I want someone to make me cry the tears I cannot cry yet.
When I was younger, I had a dream. I wanted to travel the world in order to work. I wanted to go boldly where very few dared to go. I wanted to bring news to the world and share what I know. When I was younger, I wanted to be a journalist.
I dreamed of nights in army tents, of conversations with dictators and monarchs in fine thread, and of days in desert lands far from home. I dreamed of important work with important people and important stories. I dreamed of a life of impact where I could sway people’s opinions with a well-placed word or an even better-chosen picture.
Then I grew up and I became a teacher.
I went from a world of mystery and danger and excitement to a world of anger and hope and expectation. I went from changing the world at large to changing someone’s small world for a few years at a time. I went from a dream of noble intentions to a life dedicated to the most noble work I can think of.
And what they have always had in common is my desire to change the world and leave some sort of legacy behind. It simply took me until I was twenty to realize that a legacy does not have to be a career on TV. And I’m happy that I eventually learned this lesson. Because those journalists in Syria and Israel and China live the most dangerous and adventurous dream I could have ever come up with. And I admire them even if I no longer want to join them.
I’m searching for my Prince Charming; for that knight in shining armour who is going to make me happy for the rest of my life. Even though I know that he doesn’t exist, I wish I finally met him. I know that I’m still young. I know that it’s unlikely I will ever meet someone who comes even close to being a knight in shining armour, a defender of my future, and a sentinel at the gates of my happiness. Even if he existed, it’s entirely likely that I may have to wait for years until I meet him. I don’t have my life in order. I don’t meet new people, let alone men, and I don’t know where I could possibly come across a knight or a prince or even a frog to kiss.
But sometimes it’s just so hard. In a world that projects its ideals of romance and courtship onto the silver screen, reality cannot hope to compare. In books and movies and TV shows, the knight in shining armour is a well-established character, a type, a recurring and ever-present phenomenon. It’s impossible to escape him, and it’s equally as impossible not to begin to wish and hope and dream for someone like that in real life.
It also doesn’t help that I have a deep-seated love for Jane Austen. Particularly her novel Pride and Prejudice and its many movie versions have taken me captive. It doesn’t matter if it’s Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen or Daniel Vincent Gordh who is playing the romantic lead. I fell in love with the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy when I first read the book years ago, long before I watched it in flickering pictures for the first time. My love for the characters and the story and the incomparable knight – who isn’t quite a knight and still is a knight – has only gotten stronger over time.
Of course, the actors playing Darcy are always handsome in a Hollywood-handsome, unlike-reality, too-good-looking-for-the-book kind of way, all tall and dark and mysteriously forceful. But they always play him well. They nail the ill-tempered stranger from the beginning of the novel well, the one whose pride is only surpassed by his prejudice. They manage to convey the shyness when he first falls in love and the intelligence that makes him different from all other men in the novel.
And it’s this portrayal of Darcy that has doomed my understanding of romance and love. This is exactly how I wish men really were like, how they really behaved, and how they would make me feel. Darcy isn’t without faults. He’s petty and arrogant and prejudiced. He looks down on people and meddles with the lives of his friends. He’s flawed and that’s all the more endearing. Because he overcomes his flaws for the one he loves. He’s brave and bold when he tells her about his feelings. He takes his heart in his hands and offers it to her openly and without restraint. He’s direct and uncompromising, and in the end, he helps and plays knight in shining armour without ever expecting her to know or to see what he did.
I want someone like him. I want someone whose intelligence and moral straightforwardness are uncompromising. I want someone who holds people at a distance with his arrogance and his pride, but who can take his heart into his hands when he needs to take a leap of faith. I want that kind of bravery, that kind of knightly attitude, that kind of love.
And I know it’s a fictional love. And I know that it doesn’t exist in reality. And I know I won’t find it with my head buried in books and movies and TV shows. I understand that knights in shining armour don’t exist, and I know that story-book heroes exist only in fiction. I know all that, but I still dream. And I still want. And I still hope.
I consider this to be a last-ditch attempt to rescue my future. Please destroy the castles in the air that I have been building for the past twenty-five years. It sounds like a radical approach. It sounds like I have given up hope. It even sounds like I want to pass the blame to someone else. But really, it is the only way for me to start anew. I need someone to crush all that I have ever imagined and dreamed of and hoped for in order to find a new inspiration. I need someone to be my saviour in the most un-Hollywood, un-fairy tale, and un-heroic way possible. I need someone to destroy and delete. And then I might be able to rise from the ashes and the rubble and the ruins of what used to be my imagination.
Because life has not been working out in my favour, and because the people who have been encouraging me in the past are all liars, and because I am so desperate I am willing to endure the pain, I want someone to destroy my world. I was raised to believe myself. I was told that I had a bright future if I only worked hard enough, with diligence and discipline. But I have recently discovered that dreams do not come true because people tell you they will. They only come true if all circumstances conspire to help you out. They have not conspired to help me.
So I want to start again. I want to build something from scratch. I want to imagine a new castle in the air, a new dream, and a new hope. I am still young. I am still capable of change. I am still full of hope and ambition and strength. But I need someone to help me let go of the past. I need someone to crush the chains that bind me to the past and those past dreams that will never come true. I need someone to free me by destroying everything I ever believed in. Destruction breeds new beginnings.
Maybe life isn’t about striving for some distant goal. Maybe it really is just about being the best person you can be, right now, in this moment. I usually get my philosophical inspirations from television shows which are made by people who are much more creative and knowledgeable and experienced than I am. But this one – this idea of how life maybe should be lived – came to me when I was sitting in the library at university, trying to figure out what my teacher wanted me to understand. I was reading a philosophical text on political thinking, and I was wrecking my brain trying to figure out its meaning. But I just kept on asking myself:
Why do we really study the things the professors teach us?
Why do we work for grades which, in the end, mean nothing to us or them or the rest of the world?
As students, we are working for something bigger than the now. We are all learning and studying and trying to become someone better than who we are. We are hoping to to attain qualifications for a good job. We intend to follow the circle of life, of study and work and procreation and study and work and multiplication.
But what about what is happening in our lives right now?
Does it matter that we disregard the needs of our class mates, that we hinder their progress by hiding books and acting selfishly, to further our own goals and shine in comparison to them?
What kind of people does that make us?
Are we power-hungry and ambitious simply because our lives are focused on a distant future?
I’m not sure that this is what university – the haven of intellectuality and knowledge and wisdom – should be about. I’m not sure that this is what our forefathers intended when they crafted an education system to further our development. I’m not sure that this is beneficial to society in general and us personally in particular.
Shouldn’t there be a more idealistic approach to education?
Were we not supposed to find ourselves through the experiences we made?
Did university not mean becoming universally educated to better understand life?
Maybe university education should rather be about what interests us now, at this moment, at this point in our lives. Maybe it would be better to choose courses after individual interests and what we think might benefit our development as a human being. I believe we’re more interested and invested when we learn for ourselves about things that have merit for our lives.
The kind of education we receive now has nothing to do with either.
I saw you only yesterday and already you have got me confused again. I was so determined not to let you get me down again, not to let you distract me, not to let you make me lose my focus. I wanted to finally bury all those feelings I had been developing for you. But then I saw you yesterday, out of the blue and off my guard, and I do not know how to feel and think and do anymore. You are everything I ever wanted. Your cockiness and arrogance make me laugh when you tell everyone you can hold your liquor and still recite Foucault after the second bottle of whiskey. Your humour is wonderfully intelligent with allusions to politics and art and culture in every one of your jokes. You are handsome in my eyes, with your dark hair and big hands and strong frame and this indefinable presence that demands for you to be noticed whenever you enter a room.
But I know you will never feel anything for me other than friendship. And that is why I vowed to forget about these first tingling feelings of love, this infatuation that was threatening to become something I could no longer suppress. I do not want to be hurt. I do not want to hurt myself by falling hard and fast without a safety net, without you there to catch me and break my fall. That is why I wanted to leave; why I have coordinated a strategic retreat; why I decided to call myself beat.
It is no use showing off and pretending to be someone I am not – I can no longer be – to hold your interest for a little while longer. I do not want to act anymore. I am tired of smiling through my disappointment. Your steadfast insistence on our friendship made me decide to avoid you. I could no longer allow myself to be mesmerized by your eyes and your voice and the way you walk. I had to take myself away from where you are and where your presence lingered.
And then you show up. You were the only person I did not want to see last night. It should have been an enjoyable evening. I wanted to make an attempt at reconciling with a boy I had hurt over a year ago because I was already falling in lust with you. I knew what rejection feels like even if you never outright refused me the way I said I refused him. I wanted to mend a friendship like I hoped we would one day mend ours, when I was no longer bound to you by my feelings. But then you showed up. And one glance into your eyes across a room full of my friends and your friends and everyone we knew was enough. I lost my mind and then proceeded to think about you the rest of the night, to watch you move around the room, and to charm your way into the hearts and minds of so many.
I am only beginning to understand this. There is no way around you and my feelings for you anymore. I cannot deny my feelings because I never have enough peace and quiet to bury them somewhere safe without you waltzing back into my life and pulling them out with one unconscious move. But I do not know what to do anymore, either. I cannot go on like this. It is tiresome to love someone who does not even notice me, who will not ever make the first step, and who just cannot see the love shining in my eyes every time we meet. Please, find a way to make it stop somehow. I cannot live this way. I do not want to live like this anymore. Please, just let me go.
I used to feel like I didn’t want to have a family of my own, ever. I used to abhor the idea of having children, of being responsible for someone else’s future. None of it sounded appealing to me. I hated the idea and the thought of creating a family. I was not even sure if I wanted to get married. I resented the thought that I would one day have to give up my hard earned freedom. I thought children and marriage would shackle me to a life I never imagined for myself, a life more fit for the 1950s, a life before women’s liberation and education and equality.
Everything is changed now. I miss having an older sister I can confide in with all my troubles and worries. I miss having a younger brother to take care of whenever the parents are away. I miss having a close-knit family with ties of unconditional trust. I wish I had that. I wish my family was like that.
With us, it is all smokes and mirrors. We seem to be perfect on the outside: the hard-working father, the caring mother, the ambitious eldest son with his beautiful prospective wife, and the well-behaved younger daughter. It is the perfect cover up for a dysfunctional family whose members have never spoken an honest word to each other.
My father is trying to fulfill some sort of life goal he never thought he could achieve; my mother is hiding her psychological problems at her job in random illnesses; my brother is too manly, too imprisoned in society’s expectations, to talk about his feelings. And I have been lying the white, grey and black lies since I was a kid. I never speak an honest word. I know what people expect from me; I am self-reflective; I understand what I have to do. And despite being the one person in the family who talks the most, who actually talks about some of her problems in some convoluted way of veiling the truth to make it less obscene, I cannot make myself be heard.
I hate that my family is not what I wish it was. I want something more for the future. I want to do it right. I want children who will be able to live a better life in a loving family who understands. I want a few of them. Three, five… I don’t know yet. I want them to be able to rely on each other, to relate to each other, and to share with each other. I want happiness for them and for me: real, honest and true happiness. I want to create a family different from mine. I want a real family.
I work at a bookstore at the moment. Today, when a woman came in and paid for her books, she said something I found encouraging. She said, “It simply wouldn’t be Christmas without giving books as presents.” She had bought the German translation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. A few days before, I gift-wrapped the English original of the same book for a man my age who planned to give it to his younger sister for Christmas. I bonded with both customers over a book I enjoyed a lot this year. And they seemed to have a similar understanding of books and reading and giving books as presents as I have. It gave me hope.
Working in a bookstore can be rewarding and maddening at the same time. Most bookstores have lost their small-business atmosphere. They belong to big corporations or sprawling franchises. They have layouts and designs and displays forced upon them by marketing strategists at headquarters far from the actual shop. Also, more and more, bookstores have to cater to the customer’s diverse wishes for products. Bookstores sell postcards and paper products and local specialties. They become souvenir shops instead of oases of calm knowledge and wisdom.
And yet, I marvel at the resilience of the actual book. During these weeks, leading up to Christmas, more books cross the check-out counter than any other products in our bookstore. People buy gift cards and books en masse, treating their family and friends to the newest bestsellers, the funniest non-fiction, the most thrilling crime novels, and the most elaborate fantasies. They buy stories and give away worlds for their friends to fall into. This gives me hope.
People still read. People still buy books. And I can still connect with them because we share a love for the written word.
You will never be good enough for her. I hope you know that. She will never have you if you continue living like this. She won’t look at you twice. You will have to change, drastically, to fit her needs and to meet her expectations. You will have to become someone you never wanted to be. Maybe then, maybe after some time, she will reconsider. Maybe, if you prove your worth, she might give it a try. She will make you change everything you are and everything you ever were to suit her wishes. If you are willing to leave your past behind, and if you are willing to accept a future you were never destined to live, she will look at you and find what she wants. But you will have to turn it all around if you want to appeal to her. And I wonder, as I sit here and watch you struggle and fail, if she is really worth giving up any chance of true happiness you might have had before she entered your life. I can see you giving up the person you were destined to be to make her happy, and it is killing me deep inside. If you had looked my way, I would have taken you before you twisted yourself around.
I wonder if you remember. I wonder if you remember what it was like when we were with our best friends. When we were with them every day and had more fun than at any other time in our lives. I can’t remember happier times than those days when we were laughing for no apparent reason with the people who used to know us best. We used to be so silly and we revelled in being childish, because we knew we had yet to grow up. We had so much fun that it hurts to think about how it’s all gone now. I wonder if you get what I’m trying to say without actually putting it in words.
I willingly left that life. I left the utter happiness and the unconditional friendship and the comfort of the people and the places I knew best to follow my ambitions. I left all of this warmth and light behind to fulfil my dreams, to move on to a life I always wanted. I left it all for a life I imagined to be superior to the life I led before. I sacrificed it all for the future and I don’t know yet whether it was truly worth it.
I exchanged the comforts of a predictable existence for an abstract dream that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I abandoned what I knew for something I had no idea of. I fell for a country. I fell in love with a language. And I desired a lifestyle that was different from what I grew up with. I gave up the warmth of contentment for passion and dreams and love.
Rejecting all the values I was raised with, rejecting the most priced possession a person may ever obtain, I moved on. I took my friendship away and put an ocean between myself and everything I knew.
Very few people do something like this. Very few people have the courage to abandon everything they ever knew. Very few people allow this kind of madness to take root inside of them. Because that is what it takes. It takes a certain kind of insanity to let go of so much happiness. It takes a special kind of arrogance to believe in something better than friendship and comfort and contentment.
It is only the people who are so desperately unhappy that they cannot stand living in a place where people are friendly and familiar who can leave it all behind. It is only the clinically unhappy people who can find peace in letting go. It is only those who do not know how to cure their desperation otherwise who cut their ties to the past.
I am like that. It’s how I feel, how I’ve always felt. Always. Constantly. Beneath the happiness, the cheerful disposition and the enthusiasm for the laughter and the warmth and the light around me, I was always unhappy. Desperation, longing, and disappointment always lingered deep inside my soul. They ate me up from the inside. They were always there and infused everything I did with an urgency I could never explain.
And being the egoistical, selfish and self-absorbed person that I am, I could not struggle any longer. I left. I ran away. I ran towards my salvation. I crossed an ocean. I fell into a different language. I immersed myself in a different culture. And I learned what it is like to be happy. I learned that it is possible to feel warmth and light and contentment without darkness lingering in the corners. I learned that my life could be a happy life as well.
I cannot go back now. I will not go back. I severed too many ties, burnt too many bridges. I cannot go back anymore, but I want you to know that I not only left for myself and my sanity and that abstract love for a culture not my own. I left because I knew my way would lead me to you. I knew I would find you here. I knew that I had to leave to meet you again. Because you had left before I left. You had come here before I came. You had understood before I understood.
I like being at home. I like living in my world of books and made-up stories. I don’t feel the need to be social because I enjoy the loneliness from which other people try to escape. They look at me strangely; never able to understand why I’m so content being alone. They can’t grasp the healing and calming effect of this loneliness. They’re worried about me and about what I’m missing out on. I wish I could allay their fears. But the truth is quite simple: they need to accept me for who I am. I will not change for them. It would, no doubt, be easier for them, and their conviction that companionship has the highest priority in human life, if I conformed to their wishes. If I was more social, more of a party person, they would think me less strange, and they would be happy. But I’m not like that. It doesn’t work for me. There’s no way I will give up my peace of mind to satisfy their idea of who I should be. I have struggled with this for far too long. I’m finally happy just being myself by myself. I will not sacrifice this for them. I just want to be me, and they need to accept it.
I find writing about emotions and vague impressions to be a real challenge. I do not know how to find the words to describe that which I cannot define. I like to think that I am in touch with my feelings and that I have learned to read them and to listen to them and, on occasion, to heed them as well. But I do not know where to begin when I am asked to describe the warm and comfortable feeling I get in the presence of my family and my best friends. I can write scenes about my inclusion into a circle of trusted individuals. I can show postures and attitudes that convey being comfortable. I can write dialogue which shows that I am being included in this certain group of people with their inside jokes and socially accepted backchannels and favourite conversation topics. But in the end, none of this is enough to convey the true feelings, the emotions, or the sensations of their presence in my life. There will always be a gap between the words I choose and the reality I live.
I’m dreaming of you again. I can’t help it and I feel like shit. I hate feeling helpless, not being able to influence my feelings and control my urges. Only yesterday I thought I had banned you from my mind. I had thought space and time apart would drive those thoughts of you and about you and for you away. But now I know I was wrong.
This past night I dreamt you were with me and we were happy, no matter what the others said, no matter the distance, and no matter the obstacles in our way. We enjoyed walking beneath the stars at night and kissing in the fields behind my parents’ house. We were happy in our bubble of love and friendship. Our desire was so strong and so obvious that others blushed when they looked at us. Sexual tension flowed and flourished in a room where we both attended to our duties, and the best of our friends, the only people who truly matter, loved the idea of us together. In my dreams, there was no denying it. You were in love with me and I was in love with you. And for one beautiful night, for one blissful moment in my dream, I thought it possible.
But then I woke up and remembered our night out at the movies and how I longed to kiss you then but never did, not even on the cheek, and this morning I remembered that we’re just friends and even that is a precarious arrangement depending on the people around us tolerating our acquaintance and I knew, remembered the second I woke up, that we’ll never be more than friends.