Unrequited Traditions

Dec 2, 2021 | 2022 Winter - Traditions

By Lila Hartelius

Preschool: My best friend’s friend (MBFF): “Why do you always sit by A?” Me: “Because she’s my friend.” I don’t remember what words MBFF replied with, but she made it clear that my best friend A didn’t like me sitting next to her every day in school. For the rest of the year, I gauged how often I sat next to A, changing up the rhythm and pattern to avoid any predictability or criticism.

First grade: T, the brown-haired girl one grade ahead of me, sat next to me every day. The teacher had positioned our desks like that. We hardly ever spoke. One day, my pencil rolled off my desk before I could catch it. I leaned down to pick it up. So did T. I don’t remember who got it that time, but it kept happening. One time, we bumped heads. The teacher chuckled as we each rubbed our own heads, smiling. The next time, I hesitated, let her go first. Despite her admonishment on at least one occasion, telling me I should try to stop my pencil before it rolled off my desk, at a certain point I had developed a habit of waiting immobile in my chair every time my pencil dropped to the floor. While loving the attention and interaction, I felt guilty accepting T’s help; it was hard navigating all those metal desk and chair legs. But trying to beat her to it meant risking banging my head into hers again and missing this exciting moment. One day, my pencil rolled off my desk and I found myself waiting upright in my chair, tense with anticipation, while T hadn’t even looked away from her schoolbook. Embarrassed to realize how presumptive I’d become and how much our wordless ritual meant to me, I sheepishly picked up my pencil, wondering whether she just hadn’t seen it fall or was simply tired of doing my job. After that, her pencil picking up was no longer consistent, and I quickly trained myself to hide my crushed anticipation in calm, jump-to-it retrieval of the wooden tool.

Ninth grade: Stroking the silky surface of the fimo earrings with my fingertips, I retraced their entwining colors in a trance as my dad’s car hummed along through the scrubby pine-covered hills that had peopled my childhood. Sky- and midnight-blue crescents for my friend C, fiery orbs of light and heat for me. Still palpable to me was not only the pride of my handiwork now official with silver- and gold-colored earwires but also the pleasure of having picked out as much of my red-orange-yellow- and blue-hued clothing as I could fit into two outfits. C and I had spent hours drawing and brainstorming our costumes, just like each of the three years prior. C knew I was coming over but was hard to reach by phone that day. At first, she seemed on board, if not a bit less enthusiastic, for what we’d planned. But when I called later, she was at a friend’s house. My heart sank—this was supposed to be our evening. Upset, my dad, seeing this as yet another flaky response on C’s part contrasted with my dedicated investment in the friendship, talked me out of going to her friend’s house and trying to convince her to put on the moon costume and go trick-or-treating with me in my sun costume. By that time, we’d passed the Adventist school I’d graduated from just five months earlier. That time felt like another world to me now. At my high school, people said swear words and nobody batted an eye. Light and movement came from the meager schoolhouse’s windows. I said to my dad it must be the harvest party—a clever diversion from the festivities most would be partaking in that evening but which were prohibited at the school. Having nowhere to go, I decided to crash the party and see my old friends. Without my moon, it made no sense for me to be the sun. The mere idea of holding up my end of the agreement alone gave me an empty feeling. That night, for the first time I can remember, I spent Halloween dressed up as myself. The emptiness never fully went away that evening, but it made room for a relief that brought to light the contrasting pressure of needing this once-a-year evening to have meaning, of needing to shine, to be seen for something other than me, other than invisible, other than ordinary.

* * *

These moments, and similar ones, have woven down together into a mesh of redeeming forgetfulness, a lulling fabric of fear, a fibrous textile of indifference—a persisting that quickly and silently has given way to a desisting. Even though I’ve always understood myself to be bi+, none of my relationships have been with women. For years, I thought this might be due to a non-preference for women on my part. Now I think my lack of relationships with women is due in part to a learned fear of rejection from women—in combination with societal homophobia and lack of visibility of queer women. When you want to feel close to somebody through shared experiences that you hope become cherished traditions in their heart, too, and you keep meeting annoyance, lukewarm reciprocation, or finally being ignored, then joyful anticipation can give way to hurt, which can itself give way to resignation when hurting takes too much energy.

My classmate T may understandably have simply gotten tired of picking up my pencil every time it rolled off my desk. Unfortunately for me, my seven-year-old self didn’t yet know how to take that possibility at face value. And my preschool friend A, whom I considered my best friend, might not have thought of me as her best friend and might simply not have wanted me sitting next to her all the time. And by the time my moon-costume friend C told me she was at a friend’s house, my heart was already too rejection-conditioned to not sink into the assumption that our yearly tradition, and our friendship which it symbolized for me, wasn’t as important to her as it was to me—whether or not that’s how she actually felt.

Yet that night at my old school, dressed as myself, despite the sad emptiness I felt, there was a certain magic, a certain quiet power, in the freedom I’d discovered. Liberated from the need for that once-in-a-year moment to be special, I could let go and take the moment simply as it was. Not looking to be admired or adored, I felt myself a free-wheeling outsider, an observer of a frenzy of young humans caught in a rat-race game of vying for attention.

Born of a desire to create pathways back to feelings that hold meaning, traditions have an inherent vulnerability: because they have been created, they can also be broken, and forgetting this simple fact can mean hearts are broken with them. Shared traditions—and, even more so, traditions that are presumed to be shared—are the most vulnerable, because in some cases one person alone can break them. Yet, just as a shattered vase can reveal inner surfaces never before seen, the breaking of a tradition can allow for new experiences that make room for different feelings about life.

I recognize a certain aliveness in my younger self’s anticipation of requited traditions with female friends and classmates. Witnessing the breaking of those traditions, with the realization that they may not have been so requited as I’d thought, has led me to unrealistically anticipate rejection from women, and some of that aliveness has been dampened by feigning indifference toward women, even in my own mind and heart. Yet, the distance this self-protective behavior has afforded me has allowed me to step outside the vicious circle of anticipation and disappointment, see it for what it is, and contact something deeper within myself. It has helped me realize I had depended on feeling accepted by women to feel emotionally safe accepting my capacity to love women. Now I know I can love this capacity in myself regardless of how anyone else feels about it or about me. Even if a tradition is unrequited, there’s still a feeling that inspired it, and that feeling can be cherished, even if only in one’s own heart.

Lila Hartelius is a neurodiverse, bilingual (English & French), multidisciplinary queer artist and writer who is honored to have had the opportunity to be a EuroBiCon workshop leader. She loves cats, creative and expressive arts, ecological intelligence, and brain-friendly approaches to anything from folding laundry to becoming an Olympic ice skater.

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