Recently my cousin, Leah, unearthed a box of old home movie VHS tapes she found in a closet at her mom’s house. In the 1980s, my Aunt Lynda was always toting her video camera to important family events. From my cousin’s many dance recitals, to birthday parties, to unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, my aunt’s faithfulness to hit record ensured our family memories lived on in all their 80s glory, complete with big hair, puffy sleeves and matching sweatshirts my mom made us for Christmas.
Buried in that box of recorded memories, my cousin found several of my middle- and high school musical theater performances, including the time when I was in ninth grade and played Daisy Mae in “Li’l Abner.” Leah popped the video in her mom’s VHS player, hit play and texted me a short video clip from the show.
Opening her text and watching the clip, I couldn’t help but smile. I thought back to how excited I was to land the lead female role as a freshman. I recalled my mom making the polka-dot, off-the-shoulder top and jagged-edged skirt Daisy Mae was famous for wearing. I remembered what it felt like to hear an audience laugh when I landed a funny line. I remembered how much fun it was to practice every day after school, singing, learning lines and choreography, and even sharing my first on-stage kiss (on the cheek, mind you).
Playing it safe
I loved entertaining people when I was younger. Whether it was on a stage or at home, I never shied away from the chance to sing, dance, act, get a laugh and wear a costume all in an effort to bring a smile to someone’s face.
When I was in high school, my secret dream was to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live. I would watch the show every week, feeling a kinship with amazing comedic actors like Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, and my personal favorites, Dana Carvey and Mike Meyers (#waynesworldforever).
But somewhere along the way between my freshman year and my 40s, I said goodbye that singing, dancing, costume-wearing girl. Somewhere along the way I started buying into the idea that the creative, quirky, funny side of my personality had to disappear, replaced by someone who was considered responsible, mature, trustworthy and, dare I say it, safe.
This idea was only solidified as I entered the workforce. Over my many years in corporate America, I never once saw a creative, quirky, funny woman serving in a senior leadership position. Those seats were reserved women who played it safe, women who could blend in, adapt, work the room, schmooze, and talk shop. The boardroom was reserved for women who acted confident, put together and professional. Anything but quirky.
As I read the room, I realized I needed to hide my creative side at work, or at least temper it considerably. So, I chose the safe route. And, it turns out, I was good at pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Over time I found myself celebrated and promoted for my ability to play it safe, act professional and be a responsible leader.
I stayed on the safe road for a very long time, but all that pretending took something away from me. Eventually I found myself at a place where I was confused about who I was, unsure of what I was good at, and seriously questioned who I was supposed to be.
Going off road
Over the last year, I have been trying figure all of this out, wrestling with who the world says I should be and who I, deep down in my gut, want to be.
It was during this season of soul searching that I happened upon an Instagram post from one of my favorite up-and-coming comedians, Noelle Rhodes. In the post, Noelle recounts a time in her life when she was wrestling with similar feelings of who she wanted to be versus who she thought others wanted her to be.
After sharing her angst with a beloved college professor, he gave her a homework assignment to help her solve her problem:
“Go home and get a hold of all the photos of you when you were a child. Spread them out on your bedroom floor and ask God who THAT girl is supposed to be when she grows up. You’ll see it the photos.” - @noelleprhodes
Seeing that picture of me as Daisy Mae, I was immediately reminded of Noelle’s story. That girl in the polka-dot top wasn’t afraid of being creative. She wasn’t afraid of taking a risk, of making a fool of herself, of being loud, of going out for the lead in the school play as a freshman. That girl was gutsy, funny, talented, and clever. And I realized, I really missed her.
So, little by little, I’ve been off-roading, working my way back to who I was always meant to be. There have been a lot of bumps along the way and many days when I get lost. But getting off the safe road has ultimately led to me writing a book proposal, launching a podcast, writing my book (coming soon!), and finally launching a platform for other unknown authors to be celebrated and published.
Figuring it all out has been a wild ride, but oh, so worth it.
Through this off-roading adventure, I’m rediscovering who I really am and who I want to be when I grow up (which I hope never happens). The good news is it’s never too late to figure it out, to change course, to quit playing it safe, to redirect your path and get on the road you’ve always been meant to travel.
I hope to see you out there among the hills, gravel roads, bumps and potholes of off-roading life. Be sure and look for me. I’ll be the one with the wind-whipped hair, dirt smeared costume, belting out show tunes with a giant smile plastered across my face on my never-ending quest to rediscover this girl.
Love this Leslee:)
I ❤️ Everything about this fun, creative, witty, caring, intelligent girl! You have made a Marx on me, friend.