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For this, America’s 238th Declaration Day, we asked several of our writers to reflect on the moment when, faced with some force that constricted their lives, they declared their independence.
Here are their tales—each told, as requested, in no more than three paragraphs.
Free at Last
Me, terrified and not thinking as he chased me through the house. I saw the phone and dialed 911. It had been a rough ride for years as my spouse descended into physical and mental illness. I had reached the end of my tolerance. He bellowed and I hung up. The emergency operator dialed back. Hearing my voice later in court, I was surprised to feel unashamed. The fear was authentic. That night, the police took him away. I crept upstairs on hands and knees as I heard them reading his rights, and thought: I am free! I would be moving forward. Amid the horror, it was a wonderful feeling. I have been free and independent ever since.
Born That Way
As a single woman, I’ve learned that being called “independent” is almost tantamount to being called a four-letter word. Not to me, but to many of my potential suitors, who question my never-married status—and to lots of (supposedly) well-meaning people for whom “independent” is the explanation for why I’m still single.
So it is with a with a smile in my voice that I fill in the blank to “And When Did You Declare Your Independence?” It was probably at birth that I declared my independence. Not consciously, of course, but I’ve been independent for as long as I can remember . . . probably to my detriment. As a child, I hated asking for help. If I couldn’t do it myself, it likely didn’t get done. That, stupidly, was my approach for much of my life. In fact, I’ve had to learn to be less independent, and that leaning on others can be a good and healthy thing.
But that’s the opposite of the theme of this Independence Day post, so, to get back on topic, I will simply say: I was born on November 26, and that’s when I—prophetically—declared my independence.
Summer of Self-Discovery
As I was flipping through The New Yorker, I came across an advertisement for Yale’s Writers’ Conference. I checked out the conference online, fantasizing about which classes I would take if I were young and unattached and had time to go to summer school this June. I started looking up a few of the writers who were coming to teach. I imagined choosing Expatriate Fiction with Marc Fitten, Nonfiction with Susan Orlean, or Playwriting with Donald Margulies.
I downloaded the application and found my fingers filling it out. The writing sample needed to be 1,300 words. I checked the story I had just finished writing for WVFC. “A Humbling Experience: Visiting MoMA’s ‘Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde’ with My Father” was 1, 280 words. I uploaded it. Still just curious, I decided to see if there was an application fee. Then I grabbed my wallet and took out a credit card. This was fun!
That’s when I declared my independence. It wasn’t so much a declaration of independence as an act of independence. Without thinking, I put myself first. I didn’t discuss, compromise, or accommodate. I didn’t check the dates of my children’s college vacations or ask my husband when or where he wanted to travel this summer. I did what I wanted to do, and it felt great. My month at Yale was even better than I had imagined it could be: I discovered that I can write fiction and plays! And I’ll be taking “Reconfiguring Site,” a course about public art, at the School of Visual Arts later in July.
The Handmaiden’s Walkout
Sometimes you can’t see a pattern until it’s time to break it. In my career, I achieved success quickly, rising from Junior Copywriter to Vice President, Creative Director before I was 30. From there I continued to progress, eventually being named Chief Operating Officer & Executive Creative Director at a booming midsize Boston ad agency. My résumé was impressive: top-shelf clients, international awards. But it was missing something. Over the years and in several different agencies, I had become a professional right-hand. As second in command, I effectively ran each firm and enabled its President/CEO/Owner (invariably a man) to do what he felt served the agency best: selling, of course, but also sailing or golfing or flying off to Timbuktu or—to my horror—having an affair with his secretary. Yes, I might be in charge of 40 people and $9 million in agency billings, but my business card really should have said “Chief Executive Handmaiden.”
In April 2003 I was vacationing with my husband and daughter in Mexico when I had one of those epiphanies you can only have when you’re walking on a beach thousands of miles from your office. I was four months in at yet another agency, where I had been brought in as a “partner.” But it was already apparent that I was heading toward familiar waters. I decided that I was tired of building and maintaining and growing and eating and sleeping and breathing ad agencies for other people. I decided to start my own. And, to quote Robert Frost . . . “that has made all the difference.”
Independence from Co-dependence
For most of my life, I had a pattern that looked something like this: I volunteered at a film festival and ended up letting a nominee I’d never met stay with me for the entire event—10 days! I offered to drive a pregnant acquaintance around town twice a week to do her errands—and I didn’t even like her. I dropped a writing project to help a friend write her one-woman show . . . but she never put on the show. I have taken in animals, lent TV sets, outfits, jewelry, favorite books, my car, and I have offered to pet-sit, house-sit, cook, plan others’ parties, decorate others’ house . . . you get the idea. The offers just popped out of my mouth, unbidden.
Then one day, my sister called and told me a horrible story: a cashier at the home improvement store where she worked had a baby who had just died accidentally while in the care of the babysitter. I immediately ran out and bought the woman several dense books on coping with the death of a child. The next day I drove an hour to give them to my sister to deliver, and she looked completely bewildered. “But you’ve never met her,” she said. “I don’t think she’s a big reader.”
For some reason, the absurdity of my rush to action made me see: I was not sympathizing with people—I was identifying with them. Then I was projecting onto them. My heart was in the right place, perhaps, but really, they had never asked! Frankly, my own life could have used a fair amount of care—this was just me burying that fact under a weird show of strength. And so, leaving my sister’s home with the books still in hand, that was the day I declared my independence from codependence, freeing myself and everybody else along with it. The change was not instantaneous, but over time I have learned the difference between being kind and being insufferably helpful. Some friends have not appreciated this conversion, to put it mildly, but the ones who like this me are the ones I’m happy still to have.