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Reinvention is a personal story here told by Lisa H.
My big brother once told me: “Always walk into a place like you own it.”
At the time, I was paused in the aisle of a SEPTA bus, intimidated by the people who looked up as I climbed on. John nudged me forward and offered that advice. A deeply insecure pre-teen then, I both took it to heart and wondered if I could ever follow it.
Birth of a Philadelphian
Childhood was a devastating experience in many ways and left me frequently on the outside -- sometimes looking in, but more often scanning the area in terror of monsters. They were there and they were real. From the addictive dysfunction of my family home to the bullies of the schoolyard, I met them every day. There are only so many options available to a child, so I learned to detach from the fear -- it wasn't going anywhere and one of us had to take charge.
The problem with detaching from one's dominant emotion is that it leaves very little in its place. On the verge of entering high school, I knew I had to find something to replace it in order to make the rest of my life worth living. I wanted joy in my life and I wanted friendship. I wanted to be courageous and creative and strong and all the things I most admired. I wanted to walk into my new school as though I owned it...or, at least, as though I had a right to be there.
Human beings have a great capacity for hope. Born from moments of greatest despair, it is our greatest gift. With hope, we can overcome even ourselves. Desperate hope is the mother of reinvention.
I reinvented myself for the first time at fourteen. I decided who I wanted to be and I pretended I was she. I pretended I wasn't afraid to talk to people. I pretended I thought I was just has good as anyone else. I pretended I was impervious to snide remarks and cold shoulders. I pretended until I no longer needed to pretend. I became the person I pretended to be. We do, of course. This is why we should choose that person very carefully.
As a junior at Cardinal Dougherty High, I decided to try out for the school play. I'd never done any such thing and didn’t really think I had a shot at it, but I wanted to prove to myself that I'd developed enough faith in myself to get up there on stage. While waiting my turn to audition, I chatted with the 'actor kids' who'd been doing this sort of thing for years. I watched them laugh at the blunders of their less talented classmates who took the stage. When my turn came, I stood there absolutely terrified. I could barely read the lines I was given because the hand in which I held them shook so hard. I imagine I was as bad as I thought I was. The 'actor kids' I'd been talking to earlier couldn't even look at me as I passed them afterward. Or maybe my performance had shocked them into silent stillness. Me...I was ecstatic! I floated out the door. I had become someone who didn't care if she were laughed off a stage! What a triumph!
And what a lesson! If I could do this once, I reasoned, I could do it again. I could do it whenever necessary. And it was necessary. It was vital because the thing I wanted most to be was a person who belonged in that other city...the other Philadelphia. The one I didn't grow up in.
A tale of two Philadelphias
I grew up in lower northeast Philly, in a row-home across from Sears. Most of the kids on our block attended Saint Ambrose and had grandparents or great-grandparents who'd come from Ireland or Italy. Our parents were postal workers, mechanics, police officers, clerks. They were veterans who taught us to stand with our hands over our hearts when The Star Spangled Banner played. They worked hard for everything they had and taught us to do the same. Fifty weeks per year they worked hard and the other two weeks most of them spent with their kids at the Jersey shore.
This was life in Philadelphia as I knew it. I knew it was a special place and I understood how important it was that we could claim Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell as our own. And I knew I was supposed to be proud, satisfied, and happy. In fact, my role as a young Catholic girl from Feltonville was to graduate high school, find a job as a secretary or bank teller, and work a few years while contributing to the household. Then, I was to marry a local boy and live nearby, send my own kids to Saint Ambrose, and spend two weeks each year at the Jersey shore.
But for me, there was no greater fear than the prospect of fulfilling that role. From an early age, I dreamed of going to college, of traveling far and wide, of meeting people from diverse backgrounds, of writing books and discussing them with readers while we sat in thick leather chairs in ivy covered halls.
There were two cities, existing side by side, barely touching, each only visible to the other from the corner of the eye. A blink and it was gone. Not really knowing anything of the other Philadelphia, I still knew it existed and I ached for it. There was a place I belonged -- if only I could figure out how to get there.
I decided to start at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This wonderful place wasn't a part of the Philadelphia I'd known and I was afraid of it. I was sure that, as I walked through its halls, I'd wear my ignorance like the Emperor’s invisible cloak until someone pointed and I was found out.
“You don't belong here! Fraud!”
I waited for that condemnation... at the Art Museum... in the college classrooms when I eventually pursued my education... at the ballet... even in the four-star restaurant and the gourmet food shop! Again and again, I waited to be found out.
In order to be genuine while educating myself, I walked through the Art Museum on those early visits without reading about the works until after I'd decided if I liked them. I discovered what moved me, what left me cold, what made me weep. Only then did I check out who the artist was.
“Ah! I like Monet!”
I took this same method of self-education from the art museum to other venues. Finding the nerve to venture out of the bargain basement I wandered the upper floors of Wanamaker's, our city's small galleries and antique shops, college museums and books shops and exhibits. I walked into tiny upscale cafes alone and forced myself to sit there, at first with a book as cover, later without even that.
I discovered what I liked, what I didn't like, what I really wanted from life and from the city. I discovered where I belonged and who I was. In venturing beyond my comfort zone, I became Me. It took a long time to silence that voice from the past, that voice that demanded I stay in my place, but it eventually lost its power.
I realized that was so when I was no longer afraid to walk into a college professor's office and say, “I don't understand anything you said in class.” I was no longer afraid to walk into a museum or shop and say, “I don't know what this is. Please explain.”
A full Philadelphian
Nowadays, I can straddle the two cities with ease. Knowing I can choose where and how I live, I can finally be proud of where I came from. Both cities are mine.