I was born on an even keel. Family lore says I never cried, even at birth. I felt at ease on earth, in the right place. And like many children, I took comfort in life's regularity: Every few days it rained, the school bus came and went, and my parents were rooted in their union.
Last year, after 44 years of marriage, my parents separated. Suddenly, I became like the baby I'd never been. I cried. I felt deceived. Several paranoid suspicions occurred to me, the worst of which was that my whole identity was merely a patched-together set of behaviors designed to keep my parents joined to each other—the repertoire of tricks of a small but intelligent dog. In a sense, it was my first loss of self-esteem.
To me, self-esteem is not self-love. It is self-acknowledgment, as in recognizing and accepting who you are. Recently, what has inspired me, what has helped me take heart in the long project of getting acquainted with myself, is to see my mother—a 68-year-old woman—newly single. She spent the first ten years of her life as a war refugee, but perhaps harder than that, at the end of it all, is going to the movies alone. She is learning to live without the safety of old assumptions. Self-esteem comes quietly, like the truth.
Amity Gaige teaches at Mt. Holyoke College. Her second novel, The Folded World (Other Press), was published in May 2007.
From the January 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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