During my junior year abroad, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I recreated myself. Rejecting my previous identity as a Minnesotan, Midwesterner, and American, I became a compilation of nationalities, inspired by a diverse group of people and the ‘City of Literature’ around me.
Upon arrival in Edinburgh, I soon fell into a routine of class, exercise, shopping, trying out new activities, meeting up with new friends, and exploring as far as my feet and the budget airlines would take me.
At first, I tiptoed just barely beyond my comfort zone, only feeling comfortable to join a group of strangers if I had a friend accompanying me. I was afraid of being judged or feeling out of place in this foreign city. After just a couple of months, I lengthened my stride.
A Change of Pace
Adopting a bolder attitude of accepting any opportunity proposed to me, I discovered new passions and appreciations that I would never have if I didn’t venture to that folk concert, listen to all those poetry slams, or accept invitations to dinner parties, whiskey tastings and rambunctious Scottish football games.
I refined my fashion sense, trading in the comfort of leggings and oversized sweaters for funky skirts and tights galore. I adopted Californian and East Coast slang, adding “Gucci” and “word” to my everyday vocabulary. I started listening to British indie rock, the Arctic Monkeys becoming my go-to indulgence.
Even though I was immersed in a large city, and a university ten times the size of my college back home, I grew bigger. I learned what parts of myself that I wanted, and needed to develop, and did so.
William Faulkner coined, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” These “darlings” are those parts in a written work that the author has fallen in love with but are disadvantageous to the work as a whole.
As an aspiring writer and an avid reader, I have many darlings.
The Meaning of a Darling
Home in Edinburgh, I learned what a “darling” was. It was not a belittling pet-name for a wife in 19th century literature, nor a word that you say without a second thought or suggestion of deeper meaning. Possibly my favorite activity while abroad was meeting with an eclectic and artistic group of people for tea and literary appreciation.
These jovial but informative Wednesday evenings left me to realize that these were exactly the people I wanted to surround myself with, learn from constantly, and strive to be like. This diverse group became my support system after most of my American friends returned home after their semesters abroad, very few choosing to study for a full-year.
Each one impacted me with immeasurable grace and if I had not forced myself to be present, asserting myself as someone who is indeed worth being around, I would likely have missed out on the most important shapers of my post-study abroad identity.
We discussed a short story or poem each week, a symposium of voices reacting to beautiful writing, reveling in the retained darlings of authors like Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace, and Jorge Luis Borges.
I learned what kind of reader I was, and through discussion, found that I was a sucker for poetic prose, colorful description, and the unexpected comparisons crafted ingeniously within many of the artists words. As a writer, it became more difficult for me to kill the sentimental images that I melted about upon reading. However, one must not kill all of their darlings.
Gathering Darlings of my Own
Whilst traveling, I embraced many people as my darlings. I came to love and admire many; some in fleeting moments of friendship, a stranger bonded with at the beach or a self-proclaimed tour guide. I crumbled over the thought of saying goodbye to the kindred souls, friends that brought me an invaluable amount of joy and growth. Arms were left open, not knowing if we would stay in touch across the ocean, my fully formed life in Edinburgh having a looming expiration date.
Soon I would be floating away.
Toward the end of my many journeys and overarching metamorphosis, I decided that my experience and new being needed to manifest physically. I was terrified that I would lose myself when I had to leave Edinburgh.
I grieved, melodramatically, like someone had died. It was as if my soul was shriveling up into a dried bean that would sit in the ground fruitless until I could return to the magic of Edinburgh and grow into a giant beanstalk among my friends, where I belonged.
Naturally, I got a tattoo.
I had been considering some options for a few months and drew out a few of my own designs, knowing I couldn’t regret it one day if it was my own work. Some people are still weary of individually created designs, afraid they will change their minds or values. For me, however, this was not, is still not, and certainly will not be an issue in the future.
As I continue to become, in this young-adult growth period, I will make decisions based on the multitude of positive changes I underwent while abroad. I believe it is within this deliberation that one achieves existence.
The mere notion that I was afraid to lose who I had become necessitates the transforming nature of identity. This self-awareness is what will allow me to continue growing in a direction.
Now that I know which directions those are, I am able to embrace my re-entry to America as not death but opportunity to further expand. It did feel like death, as far as my limited earthly knowledge can reach, when I left Edinburgh. However, I am not a delicate butterfly, with the average life span of nine months; my Self is infinitely capable of metamorphosis.
I chose to dedicate my right ribcage to my Darlings, and all of their significations, to be reminders to move forward, but with the past and present in heart.
Not all scars are indications of painful accidents or unfortunate folly. My scar was internal, wrenched away from the people and atmosphere that I was the best version of myself in. However, scars heal.
They can also change into something even more beautiful. Beauty often requires pain. Not all pain must be negative.
These Darlings of mine will not be killed, not struck off with a line or relegated to footnotes.
They left a resounding imprint, a painful, but beautiful scar on my body and soul, to be regarded as the rich soil of my rose. However, I am still a bud and will caress the sun as I continue to “embrace and release my darlings”.
Maria Noel is a student at Gustavus Adolphus College and studied abroad with IFSA in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-2016 academic year.