At 18, I found myself alone on a plane to Paris. I had about $2000 in tips I’d saved up all summer, a one-night reservation at a Left Bank hotel, and a letter of permission from the French government to apply for seasonal work. I did not have a return ticket to the States.
I remember the first night so vividly: Jet lagged, I sat in my musty, over-priced hotel room and called every hostel in the city, trying to find a place to stay that I could afford and, more importantly, trying to muster my eight years of French to accomplish this with a sleep-deprived brain. I found a dorm opening a few blocks away for $20 a night, and to celebrate, I took myself out to a touristy restaurant by the Sorbonne and ate salmon in a buttery dill sauce. A glass of wine improved my French significantly, so I prattled away with the waiters and savored my first night as a Parisienne and then stumbled back to my hotel.
The next day, I dragged my bags the mile or so to the hostel. I arrived sweaty, frustrated, overwhelmed—and for some reason, embarrassed. The lobby was filled with young people sharing beers, playing cards, chatting in French and English and German, looking more stylish than I knew was possible. I was probably in my mid-nineties uniform of overalls, Fleuvogs, and a t-shirt. My throat was too constricted to even muster an “allô” at the crowd that waved at me. I checked into my sixteen-person dorm, went to the shower, and cried.
If you know me, you know how this story ends: I had a fabulous semester in Paris. I made friends from London and Stockholm and Marin County. I worked at the Gap and perfected my pronunciation of “Bonjour” while folding shirts. I smoked Gauloises, met colleagues for before-work espressos, explored the city on foot, shopped at les marchés aux puces to Frenchify my wardrobe, lusted after my favorite bartender, and ate late-night crèpes on the steps of the Bastille. My eventual apartment roommate, Sylvie, tolerated my Americanness, just barely, and I worked hard to impress her with my detailed French phone messages and appreciation for arthouse cinema. I learned to love a kir royale, to argue with bureaucrats in French, and to never make eye contact with a single man on the Métro. It was a good semester.
But it was also a hard semester, although that was exactly why it was such a good semester.
This was the fall of 1996, what should have been the first semester of my second year at Harvard. But the first year had been at least a partial disaster—grade-wise, romance-wise, roommate-wise—and I suffered through a major depression, although I didn’t know to call it that at the time. After sleeping through midterms and skipping classes and drinking far too much, I just knew I couldn’t go back to school. Not yet. Once I knew that, I also knew this: I needed to go to Paris. I needed to go alone. And I needed to prove to myself that I could survive hard things. This prospect somehow felt harder than what I’d endured as a first-year student at Harvard. Making a life in Paris, in French, from scratch…this is how I thought of the task ahead of me, and I made a deal with myself that, if I could do this, then I could go back to school in the spring. There was no logical connection between these two things, but it made emotional sense to me. So, come September, instead of returning to Winthrop House, I hopped on a plane, got a job and a roommate, and lived in French.
What was the moral of this semester that I needed to learn for myself? I can do hard things. I can survive hard things.
I should have already known this. I had already survived so many hard things in my life at that point, but those hard things were largely out of my control, and so they didn’t leave me a sense of efficacy, a sense of being able to make things happen in my world of my own volition. Instead, I needed to do something hard of my own making in order to find confidence in my ability to just be, to just keep going, to wake up the next day and the day after that. It was a lesson of independence—hard-headed, pushed-to-my-limits independence—a lesson in how to survive on my own, without a support network. A lesson in how to square my shoulders and just plow through a tangle of life until I came through the other side. Which I did.
This obsession with surviving independently, it is a trauma response. I know this now. I also know now that surviving independently wasn’t the real lesson that I needed to learn.
Let me flashforward to two weeks ago. I had just left Milwaukee with my two littles and a 23-foot RV trailer in tow, headed for pretty close to the southern tip of the United States. Three days and 1400 miles of solo driving ahead of me, I was nervous. We’ve had the RV less than a year, and all of our trips thus far had been as a family of four, with Ross doing most of the driving and technical work. I made reservations, outfitted the camper, navigated, drove when needed, cooked, unclogged the toilet, and plugged in the electric, but the hard stuff? Ross did it all: Backing into parking spaces. Hooking and unhooking the trailer. Dumping the sewage. Troubleshooting the mechanicals that go wrong. I was pretty sure I could do all these things, too, I just hadn’t. Yet. But as we left Milwaukee, me the only adult in the car, all these things became my responsibility. Eighteen-year-old me would have squared her shoulders, clenched her jaw, and charged forward with determination to do it herself, thankyouverymuch. But fortysomething-year-old me? Here is the mantra I repeated over and over on the drive down to Florida in order to coax my shoulders down from my ears and let go of the tension in my neck: You can ask for help. You can ask for help. You can ask for help.
And ask I did. Our first night on the road, I pulled myself easily into the last space in the parking lot; in the morning, I couldn’t get out. A couple in a pick-up truck watched from a few spots over as I tried to inch my way out. Instead of averting their gaze, I took a deep breath, smiled, and waved. I asked for help. I might still be stuck in Macon, Georgia if I hadn’t asked for help backing up my camper—actually, if I hadn’t asked this complete stranger to back up my camper for me. I was that desperate.
When we arrived in Sanibel, it was dark, and we’d been assigned an awkwardly shaped back-in spot. I inspected, plotted my course…and completely turned the trailer the wrong way. I started over, aware that people were passing on bikes and glancing at my very wrong maneuvers. One woman waved and said, “You look like you need help.” I need help, I admitted. This was my first time backing into a space, and I had no idea what I was doing, I explained. She called her husband over, who called their neighbor over, and before I knew it, I had a team of spotters not only guiding me in but also teaching me how to drive my RV. They cheered when I backed it in perfectly, with my New Hampshire neighbor saying that was the best first-time parking job he’d seen. Only because you were here to help, I said. An hour later, I couldn’t get the stabilizer bars off or the car unhitched, and someone else saw me struggling. He showed me what to do, taught me the mistake I was making, and wished me well. Pretty much every day in that first week on the road, I needed help with something: Why wasn’t the hot water coming out? How do I put a chain back on my bike? Can I drive with this loose cable? How do I treat these no-see-um bites? How do I get out of this space? Is my car over-heating, or am I just imagining the smell? And complete strangers obliged. Instead of wasting our first week in paradise stressing over car hypochondria and RV stewardship, I asked for help and then got on with our fun.
In the Everglades, I began packing up the camper alone, only to misalign the ball and hitch over…and over…and over. A camper nearby walked over. “Do you want some help?” Yes, please. We worked together and got it lined up on the first try. A few minutes later, I beckoned her and her partner again. I was doing something wrong with the latch on the hitch; could they help me figure it out? There is a time in my life where asking this question would have mortified me. It would have mortified me that, a few minutes later, someone came over to let me know I needed to raise the jacks before I could hook the hitch. Instead, I thanked her. I got out of there more easily because I admitted I couldn’t do this on my own. I was brave for trying, my neighbor told me, and I accepted the compliment, but I added: I might be brave, but I also know when I’m out of my league.
In the Everglades and in Jacksonville and in Sanibel, and I’m sure at every stop to come, I am turning to strangers to help me literally keep moving. Sometimes that ask was preceded by tears, sometimes by embarrassment, sometimes by frustration. I have, however, talked myself back from the edge of shame. There is nothing shameful about asking for help, I tell myself. And you know what? Two weeks in, and I’m finally believing this. The knowledge is moving from my head to my bones: There is nothing shameful about asking for help
A few years ago, one of my most beloved students asked me to attend the commencement event for her scholarship program. This full-ride scholarship is for first-generation, low-income college students—me, 25 years ago. At the event, each graduating senior gives a speech, thanking family and professors and donors. They’re all tear jerkers, because how can this moment not be? Me, though, I wasn’t just crying; I was ugly crying. Because in those students, I saw my younger self, navigating the unfamiliar collegiate world: Worried about money. Distracted by endlessly unfolding family crises. Confused about what I was supposed to be when I left this university world. Doing my best and always feeling like it just wasn’t enough. But the ugly crying wasn’t just the recognition of myself in these students; it was also the recognition of what was different. Every single student described in their speech a process of learning to ask for help. This was, in fact, the heart of their scholarship support programming: You don’t need to do this alone. We are here for each other. We are stronger together. We can help each other.
My student—brilliant, strong, dedicated—used her speaking time to describe the hardest moments of her undergraduate life. She described folding into herself after Trump was elected and DACA was to be rescinded. To this room of family and strangers, she described sinking into a dark and lonely and impossible place, and how she didn’t think she would ever emerge again. But then, her peers showed up for her: You are not alone, they said. We are here to help, they said. Please let us in. So she did. She let them connect her with our university’s counseling center. She let them sit with her while she finished coursework. She let them keep her company. She let them fundraise for an immigration lawyer for her family. She let them in, and she let them help. And because of that, she was graduating. Because of that, she was employed. Because of that, she was waking up to a future she hadn't been sure she would even make it to. All of this became possible because she let help in, and more importantly, because there were people there reaching out to help.
This is why I was ugly crying. When I went to college, I was alone. There was no cohort of first-gen or low-income peers. There was no dedicated support network teaching me how to succeed. There was no college-oriented family infrastructure to propel me forward. There was barely even an adult presence in my life in Cambridge that knew anything about me. I was alone, and so I learned to go it alone. That was why I went to Paris. I was failing at being alone in Cambridge, but I thought that if I could prove to myself that I could do something alone, independently, I could carry that knowledge with me back to school. I could hold onto that knowledge when my college life was too much for me, when I felt like too much of a failure, when I felt like I was drowning.
That lesson (mostly) did the trick. I went back to school after that semester break. I tried to focus on academics. I tried to throw myself into the enjoyable parts of university life, and I tried to avoid the painful parts. I graduated. I did the hard thing. But here’s what I know now that I wish my younger self had the occasion to learn:
We can do hard things, yes, but those hard things become so much easier when we ask for help. This is not a weakness; it’s a superpower. It’s what propels us forward to tomorrow and the tomorrow after that and even after that. We can do hard things, sure, but we need not do them alone.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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