Ashley Kaiser ’90 reflects on her many journeys and the many more to come
The day I left for Dartmouth, my mother’s parting words before I boarded the plane were, “I met your father my freshman week. You could meet the man you’re going to marry tomorrow!” I know she meant well, but at the time her words pissed me off. I was not going to college to meet a man. I was an independent woman! I was going to college so I could become somebody important and do important things!
Flash forward thirty-four years. Have I’ve been successful? Am I important? Have I done important things?
My Dartmouth application included an essay I wrote on the famous lines Polonius says to his son in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Ironically, although I set out to be true to myself, somewhere along the way I stopped listening to my inner voice and allowed others to define my worth. Here’s how that played out:
In my teens I was obsessed with boys and my weight.
In my twenties I began to carve out a career and married too young.
In my thirties, I swapped my career for motherhood.
In my forties I got divorced and started over.
Now 51, I’m getting better at being true to myself and I more fully understand what becoming someone important and doing important things means.
I’ve pursued various creative endeavors along the way that probably saved my life. Creativity is at the core of who I am and has always provided a lifeline back to my true self – especially during hard times – even if I wasn’t always paying attention. My writing, music, and other projects share a common thread: never giving up, giving and receiving love, loving oneself.
My divorce was a notable moment of empowerment in my life. After being in denial about my happiness for years, my mother’s death at 66 triggered an epiphany for me: life is short, I wasn’t happy, and I wanted a divorce. Thankfully I had the guts to face my truth despite many voices telling me I was crazy, selfish, and wrong. I got out of an abusive relationship and learned who my real friends were (and were not). I made new friends and rebuilt my career. I modeled authenticity and strength for my three teenage sons who I had every other week, and we remain very close despite my ex’s attempts to turn them against me. I fell in love a few years later and married a man who respects and loves me. My sons see that, and I gained another son, daughter-in-law, daughter, and son-in-law! I took a leap of faith towards joy, had to go through hell, and came out the other side more than okay; I’m thriving.
I’ve come a long way, but there’s work to do. I want to write a book. That’s going to take another leap of faith. My sons are all pursuing creative careers. This is both exciting and petrifying for me. Will they succeed? If my quest as a mom was to raise three great men, as I say in my video, have I succeeded? Poor old Polonius was just doing the best he could. So was my mom, and so am I. My kids will too. At the end of the day, our lives are up to each of us.
“This above all: to thine own self be true” is about knowing one’s values and sticking to them, and knowing one’s worth and never doubting that. But it’s also about understanding the emotions that drive the actions we take. It took me a long time to recognize that, like my mom, I had been making too many decisions based on fear and worry, rather than joy and possibility.
If I could go back to that day when my parents put me on the plane to Dartmouth, I would grab myself by the shoulders, look myself in the eye, and say, “You are already somebody important, never forget that. And living an intentional life driven by joy and possibility is the most important thing in the world.”
Ashley Kaiser graduated from Dartmouth in 1990. She is a writer and creative consultant. Her personal projects include the children’s book Lance in France (HarperCollins 2004), the movie Raw Faith (Alive Minds 2009), and she moonlights as a singer-songwriter (Someone Like You and Choosing Joy). She lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Alex and they will soon be traveling the United States and Canada in their new Airstream. Her blog can be found at ashleykaiser.com.