My Journey to Authenticity

By Priscilla Blackie Varner (Theta Sigma, University of North Florida)


My name is Priscilla Blackie Varner, and I was born in Charleston, South Carolina on August 5, 1972. My mom (a former race car driver) and my dad (always a troublemaker) met in summer school and married when my dad returned after serving two tours in Vietnam. Living authentically didn’t come to me until later in life, although I did pick up on some cues along the way. By the time I graduated high school, I had attended five elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools. I spent my childhood changing like a chameleon; flexibility meant survival as a military child.

For me, college wasn’t much different; I attended five colleges/universities in six years. Each time I transferred, I put on a different face to acclimate to my new community. I initiated into Alpha Chi Omega at the University of North Florida. I soon transferred to Epsilon Zeta at Auburn University where I found the experience a bit overwhelming, so I promptly returned to Theta Sigma. Oh, and I met this cute fella.


That guy I took to the Carnation Ball in 1993? He joined the Navy, and then I married him. I was already used to moving every 10 minutes, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I knew I excelled at the chameleon thing; I was ready to go! As we moved around the country, I was kept busy trying to reinvent myself at every duty station. I had no experience being myself, so why start now?


Here’s a new one to throw into the mix: mom! To add to the excitement, I had to figure out how to be a mom of two by myself. My husband left for Afghanistan three weeks after our second baby was born. It’s hard to rear your children to “be themselves” when you don’t even know who you are! I think it’s important to note that even though I had no idea who I WAS, I wasn’t sad. I was living life, surviving the challenging times while enjoying the good times. I think when you’re busy chasing kids and being both mom and dad, you’re too tired to work on being the authentic you.


My husband came back for a few months and then promptly deployed again. No time for me as we had to make the most of “we” while he was home. In between the diapers, the bottles, 57 trips out of the convertible crib in one night and all of the visits to urgent care, I started to see little bits of “me” appear. I was introduced to photography for the third time in my life…and this time it stuck.


Soon I was managing the entrepreneur life, mixing it with some mom life, and sprinkling a little wife life on top. Those 1-hour portrait sessions were amazing, and they were all mine. A few years after my portrait business began, we were transferred to the Middle East. I found a new nugget of information: I absolutely love travel and learning about new cultures. And then I met my best friend. Sometimes you meet your BFF as a child and sometimes you meet them in college. I had to move 7,000 miles away from home and wait 35 years to meet mine only to find out we went to college together. She challenges me every day to be my authentic self. (Note: The women are wearing hijabs and abayas, as required to enter a mosque, where they learned about Islam and the local culture.)


I started working on my authentic self in my 30s, but I didn’t really figure out who she was until I completed grad school at the age of 43. I spent three years crying my way through my MFA program. SO much self-discovery. So many patient professors. Did you know I’m an unapologetic feminist? Yeah, me either. But now I do! As I started figuring out who I was, I lost the man that gave me one of my best qualities. My sense of humor is the backbone of my personality. I learned I can get through anything, even his funeral, with a few laughs.


Once we moved back to Colorado, I signed up to volunteer with the Nu (University of Colorado Boulder) chapter. Outside of photography, this is the only other thing in my life that I don’t have to share with anyone. These women helped me find a confidence in myself that I never thought I would find. An unapologetic sense of confidence allows me to speak my truth. That truth carried over into my art, and now I make art with a purpose and without deadlines.

This is me. After nearly 50 years on this planet, I’ve discovered living authentically means I laugh a lot, and sometimes during appropriate times. I’m fiercely loyal, a servant leader, feisty, opinionated, and I love so hard. I am a real, strong woman living her real, authentic life without apologies.