Trading a carob energy bar for your best friend’s onion rings isn’t an easy task at seven. Neither is explaining why you don’t have cable or air conditioning at your house.

Most of my childhood was spent trying to comprehend why my mother wouldn’t just conform, make things simpler.  I couldn’t understand her willful denial of all things normal. I vowed to one-up her.  I would do it all, be it all.  Creative and financially successful. Glamorous and intelligent.  Adventurous and responsible.  Above all, I would be normal.  I would be everything I wanted to be and still fit in.

So, I studied poetry in college but always had a reasonable job. I got my M.F.A. in creative writing but started my career in advertising. I bought the car, the house, the clothes and wrote and volunteered in the few hours I had left. I clawed my way up. I managed people. I came into the office on Saturdays, and Sundays. I got phone calls from factories in China late in the evenings.  I was a grand success. And then they fired me. I have never been so relieved.

Living your life is like packing for a weekend trip on which you can take only one suitcase. Somewhere along the way, I forgot that mine wasn’t elastic. I had packed it so full of other people’s valuables that no matter how much I sat on the lid or tugged on the zipper, I couldn’t make my stuff fit.

So I’m dumping everything out and starting over.

I realize now, my mother came to this understanding at a much younger age than I did. She refuses to be what other people expect of her because there isn’t room in her life to be herself and something else as well. I have friends who are brilliantly successful accountants, ecologists, artists, lawyers, and politicians. They offer no apologies for being wholly themselves.

Fortunately, unpacking my metaphorical suitcase was faster than filling it. During the last two years, my husband and I have systematically shed the extraneous obligations in our lives.

The house is sold, our few remaining belongings are packed away in storage, and our letters of resignation have been given.

On June 14, we will board a plane to Mauritania with a group of Peace Corps volunteers. My suitcase is gloriously empty. I cannot wait to fill it with people and poems, challenges and triumphs: all the treasures I now have time to take up, dust off, and put in their proper place.

Alice Pettway’s chapbook, Barbed Wire and Bedclothes, is forthcoming from Spire Press, Inc. later this year. She is a former Lily Peter Fellow, Raymond L. Barnes Poetry Award Winner, and two-time Pushcart Prize Nominee and has published work in The Bitter Oleander, The Connecticut Review, Crab Creek Review, Lullwater Review, The Mid-America Poetry Review, and others. Alice holds an M.F.A. in creative writing. She, her husband, and their husky currently live in Fayetteville, AR.

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