I was feeling pleased with myself, having found the shortest checkout line at Costco, when an older woman on the long, anaconda one next to mine lodged a complaint. “The line starts all the way back there,” she said to me, pointing. I tried to explain that my line didn’t actually start where hers did. She disagreed, pleading her case to bystanders. Gaining no support, she instead tried to penetrate my soul: “You cut all those people. That’s on you if you can live with this on your conscience.”
I almost laughed out loud.
Let’s be clear: I have plenty of things on my conscience. Sometimes I think about the time in first grade I borrowed a tiny green pencil sharpener and “forgot” to give it back. Recently, I teased someone because he didn’t remember I was once his next-door neighbor, only to discover later he’s suffering from memory loss.
Illogically, I sometimes wonder whether I could have prevented my 13-year-old’s autism if I hadn’t had a planned C-section on the earliest date possible. Surely, I put too much pressure on him during potty-training, which must be why he still holds his bowels on occasion, causing sleep disturbances. Then I worry I’ve made my youngest son anxious, having been raised by a mother fretting about all the things hanging on to her conscience.
So I found it amusing that this woman wanted me to feel bad about something I objectively shouldn’t have, simply because she was upset I hadn’t waited as long as she had. Back when I was applying to Stanford, I might have. I’d often accommodate others first, disregarding hardships on myself. I did it to respect my elders. To not rock the boat. To make others feel comfortable.
Not to say I was a fading flower. But there were times I didn’t demand my worth because I was afraid I’d insult my boss; avoided a dream career to satisfy the expectations of my working-class upbringing; or, later, abandoned my work to support my son at home. In my Stanford essay, you can see me hedging my true desires over what I think is more acceptable. Reflecting on my venture producing talent showcases in NYC, I wrote: “I perform from time to time, but I am mostly delighted to have found a way to blend my love for the arts with my talent for marketing and running a business.” Truthfully, I just wanted to act, sing, create art. Sometimes it’s easier to do what’s expected rather than trip landmines running toward your deepest desires.
Eventually, those choices suffocated me, including staying at home. After 10 years, I felt like I was dying. Then, in 2017, my 45-year-old sister actually died. Life was too short to make others comfortable at my expense, even my family. My husband and I now juggle the kids and my unpredictable career as a writer, performer, and speaker. My husband is supportive; my mother thinks I’m nuts. It’s hard, uncomfortable, exhausting. Sometimes I trip a landmine, but it’s not as explosive as I’d imagined. We all survive. I feel alive.
I didn’t argue with this woman in Costco, nor did I laugh, even when she repeated her line about my conscience. It can sometimes weigh me down, but I refused to bear her load. I moved toward the front of my own line, not looking back.
— Doreen Oliver