Finding My Cool

Many people would have said I had already found my cool...

I had a cool job in the designer fashion industry. I wore designer clothes to work. I ate most of my meals in expensive restaurants. I traveled to New York and LA for my work. I lived in a cool loft apartment. I went to cocktail parties in galleries, museums and penthouse apartments. And all of that stuff certainly was cool...but I wasn't. I didn't feel it. I wasn't living my cool. How could I? I didn't have any idea what my 'cool' was.  

Recently, I was having brunch with someone I had known peripherally from the time when I was living and working in Boston's Back Bay. While we were standing together in the buffet line, he turned to me and said: "You know Collette, I never really thought you liked me. You never seemed like you did." It stopped me. When I thought about our interactions in the past I could absolutely see why he might have made that assumption. I was in distant and not engaged. And this wasn't the first time someone approached me and told me that they felt I was intimidating or angry or unhappy with them when in fact I was feeling none of those things. The truth - and what I replied that day at brunch - is; "I am actually weirdly shy". Yes, I know. I can hear the disbelief of some people who have known and encountered me - especially during my professional life - laughing as they read this. "You?" "Shy?" "Hahaha!" I know. It sounds absurd. And actually, 'shy' is a few steps shy of the whole truth...

What I was, was protected and guarded. I rarely opened up to anyone unless they opened up to me first. And even after they had done so - even in some cases after years of friendship, I was still deeply guarded; telling people what I thought they wanted to hear instead of telling anyone who I really was.

And how the hell could I have told anyone who I was? I didn't know. Its not as if I was completely false. I am not really capable of successfully faking anything. But there was a jumble of thought, personality, ideas, beliefs; mine and those overlaid by others and by society, that I had never made heads or tails of.

This is the point. I was there. I was always there, but completely interwoven with my own ideas and experiences, there was a continual chorus of other people's words and ideas; things I "should be, want, think, achieve"... I was in there somewhere. I just didn't know where. I didn't know how to value myself or my own ideas. On some level I believed that all of those socialized, overlaid ideas must be "right".  From my earliest days, I - like most people in our civilization - had been encouraged and pressured to conform; not only in my actions, but in my thinking as well. 

I don't know if conformity is an ill-fitting garment for everyone, or even for the majority of people. I don't know if I am some sort of freak. I do know that throughout my own life I have always felt at least a little alienated. There I would be; sitting at a dinner, business meeting, or in a group of people having a conversation: my exterior, clothing and persona were all saying, "fashion business executive, cosmopolitan, self-assured woman", while I was inside, peering out, wondering why I didn't get it. I examined and re-examined every word and every gesture in my life; sometimes I would leave a gathering and examine, over and over - sometimes for hours - trying to understand if my words, behaviors and actions conformed adequately to the social norms. When interactions between myself and others didn't go smoothly, I was often mystified. What had I done or said that was "wrong"? Why didn't I know?

Almost 40 years ago; a few days before I graduated high school, I remember having a conversation with my sociology professor who said to me; "You may have a difficult road ahead of you." We had been studying the internal motivations of people; discussing the differences between 'inner-direction' and 'other-direction'. Suddenly, he surprised me by making a personal comment. He said; "From my observations of you during the past term, it is clear that you are predominately, inner-directed by nature, and such people tend to have difficulty in their social lives. You will probably find yourself forced to choose; follow your authentic inner direction which will make you feel alienated from society, or follow the direction of others and feel alienated from yourself."

I don't think I ever made a conscious choice to follow the "other" direction; but I did need to work, eat, earn money, find I created a persona; one that I thought - or hoped - was socially acceptable; one that would allow me to make my way in the world. But my professor was right. I was living in ever-increasing alienation. Internally I just couldn't feel conformity with the norms. Not only was there a continual disconnect between who I was pretending to be, and who I really was, but there was also a deep, pervasive, sense of "what's wrong with me?" And those thoughts played hell with any possibility of self-love. Although I didn't usually notice the conscious thought; "I must be deeply damaged goods", it ran around my internal psyche. It was the ground of my being. "I am flawed, damaged, different from others. The person I really am is not okay. I must hide this flawed person and create an acceptable persona." There was an ever-deepening disconnect between thought and behavior. And there was deep uncertainty about ever allowing anyone to glimpse the truth. 

Then, there came a day, about 7-8 years ago when I began to panic. I was so deeply alienated that I started succumbing to confusion. I simply had no idea how to proceed in life. I had already divorced two husbands and although my career was flourishing, the energy required to maintain the facade and my distance from others was draining me; and leaving me deeply lonely. All of my relationships felt increasingly superficial.

I woke up one morning feeling like I was hanging onto a ledge by my fingernails and at any moment I was going to fall. I thought I was going crazy. I called a therapist. As soon as I was on the phone with the therapist I began to cry. All I could manage to say was that I needed help. A floodgate opened....

For the next two years I sat in her office and cried...and cried...and cried... She listened. She accepted. She gave me the first experience I ever had of someone just listening while I told her who I really am. She  assured me that it was okay; that I was really pretty normal. And she encouraged me to begin to listen to myself. I was so accustomed to self-censoring that I really had no idea who I was. She encouraged me to let it come; and then to go deeper. She offered me the idea that I - the real me - might actually be lovable; and that I might even be able to love myself.

During those two years I began the journey of returning to myself; following my own intellectual and spiritual inclinations into meditation and Buddhist/Vedantist self-inquiry. A couple of years after that I walked out of my old life and began the physical journey of "finding my cool". That's what this is all about; leaving my career, falling on my feet, wandering around for a year alone in the world, landing in Providence and creating a business. I am finally beginning to understand myself; that I have always been a shadow artist, a little bit bohemian, a free spirit. And I understand that this is okay - more than okay. Its a wonderful thing to be my authentic self! I am beginning to feel the most astonishing sense of freedom; a true 'coolness of being' that has nothing to do with the thoughts or opinions of others. I have stopped clipping my own wings. I am learning to fly....

Collette is a traveler, writer, stylist...  After twenty-five years in the designer fashion industry, working for Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, she took a sabbatical and wandered away into the wide world to find adventure, to explore, meditate and learn.  For a year she traveled alone; a container ship ride across the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan, China and Hong Kong; ferries and trains, busses and planes across Southeast Asia and Australia; eight days sitting in silence at the feet of Mooji; advaita Vedantist spiritual teacher; living and traveling for two months in Spain while studying Spanish -- which she hopes someday to master.

Returning to the US, Collette settled in Providence where, attracted by the beauty of the city, the miles of Rhode Island coastline and the crazy art vibe, she hopes to contribute to what she believes is a developing urban renaissance.  In addition to 'finding her cool', she is currently a style consultant, freelance writer gathering new stories from life and the art around her and working on a full length book about her journey.