I Used to Be You: An Ode to SelfhoodNov 22, 2021
Only the important things come without instructions. Philosophy and religion come with books — they may not give you all the answers but they’re pretty clear about what not to do. Even pumpkin pie has a recipe.
But for life’s big stuff, the stuff that makes you who you are, makes other people who they are, stuff like how to pick a partner or how to parent a child, that stuff must be learned the hard way. Sure, there are bestsellers written on these very topics but nobody reads these until the problem stands naked before them.
The whole sink or swim approach begins early. Off they send you to school without even a pictograph describing how to make a friend. Does the whole thing kick off with a wave, a joke, a little dance? If you’re lucky someone’s at least told you about the golden rule or you have enough sense to ask ‘What would Jesus do?’ Five years old, of course, is too young to know Hammurabi’s code but maybe you know about Pooh and Christopher Robin or have reflected on whether you’re more like Tom or Jerry.
Personally, I think the first day of school is just one chapter from God’s playbook on humility. While the average person sees adorable, miniature people outfitted in cartoon backpacks clutching mom’s hand, upstairs God sees beyond. You might call it bravery but that’s because you’re mortal. What humans call courage the divine calls showtime.
Overconfident naivety isn’t an official diagnosis but if you could have seen me that day — the light cotton dress chosen for its excellent twirl-ability, the dark button-up sweater perfect for an afternoon breeze, the white knee-high socks because August in Georgia is too early for tights, the extra firm grasp on my grade A Tupperware lunchbox, and the smile, that great big innocent grin— if you could have seen all that, you might have asked God to scoot over and hand you the popcorn. “There goes another one,” God told the angels, after a particularly grueling day of omnipotence.
“Bless her heart,” the angels sang, then cracked open a cold beer.
My therapist says that even though we grow up, inside we’re all still children.
This sentiment has helped me in times when I imagine that I ought to be more mature, more evolved, braver. And yet I run smack dab into a smaller, more fragile part of my self. “Who is that scaredy cat?” I wonder. And to that, Dr. B. would say, “It’s you, silly.”
I was born an optimistic extrovert. Sunny side up. Sometimes it feels like even the birds and trees are singing. I smile and wave at all the people and it’s like the wheels on the bus go round and round and life just might be this beautiful story we’re all writing together. Challenges? My habit has been to fling myself like a rubber band to the other side of the room. What I miss in flight I’ll find when I land.
It’s all fun and games until something goes haywire inside. For reasons unknown to me, I occasionally become suddenly aware of my reckless optimism. I do the thing everyone says not to do. I look down.
In such times, inadequacy and rejection enter the room with subtlety, pick up my flimsy rubber band, and examine it with mock importance. “Don’t trip,” they snicker and gesture toward my slightly lifted right foot, freeze framed for future reflection.
On the first morning of a recent conference in Nashville, the day started in a benign banquet room outlined with half-filled tables and strangers. The night before had been quite different. Then, my anonymity had come with the advantages of unobserved people-watching. In a city with thousands of raucous, music-loving strangers, you could stare as much as you wanted. And boy do I love a good drunk lady swaying solo on the dance floor. Plus, the entertainers weren’t looking to form relationships. Contentedness seemed measured by the numbers of song requests shouted from the crowd and the volume of dollars left in the tip jar. Entering the banquet room, I felt the shift from passive gear to “Hello I’m Victoria. Now say something interesting about yourself” acutely. I would have much preferred to skip the angst of introductions and gone straight to the best friend part where we share funny stories and pictures of our kids.
I sat down at a 4-top near the pastries and smiled at the two women already eating. It was a split-second seating selection after noticing that one woman was a dead ringer for her thumbnail image on Slack. I was already waving when I remembered the familiarity likely only flowed one way. Still, sometimes awkwardness can be its own social strategy, so I made a dad joke about feeling like I was meeting a celebrity. It sounded needier than I’d hoped, and I took a big gulp of black coffee and studied the contents of our plates. Everyone had opted for the cheesy eggs instead of the veggie scramble but such an observation felt desperate. Thankfully, I was spared by celebration.
They were both expecting their first baby! Myself and the fourth table guest now seated offered our congratulations and advice. We had older children and plenty of experience to contribute. We listened intently as they each described the journey so far. One, miserable with morning sickness and sleep-deprivation, swore off more pregnancies. The other glowed from the happy endorphins released in 2nd trimester, where she promised the other expectant mother that good times await. I nibbled at the edge of my apricot danish, only a little jealous they had the perfect ice breaker for conversations like this.
On the inside, I knew that I could not be sum totaled by an introduction. Most days, I believed that authenticity mattered. But somehow, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my first day of junior high and I’d worn all the wrong clothes.
I cut a piece of cantaloupe with my fork and pondered the meaning of life. “It was wonderful to meet you all,” I said with sincerity, then refolded my crumpled napkin, gathered my belongings into the “Reinvention & Resilience Summit” swag bag, and followed a crowd upstairs to find a seat.
If you want to really know children, drive a carpool. There’s something about the lull in the commute, the scenery out the window, and the in-between moments that loosen their thoughts. If you’re lucky, they’ll share them with you.
Many years ago, I was driving the soccer boys across town for their match. It was before the Portland rainy season and the trees mingled their green and gold amidst the warehouses of Powell Boulevard. My son’s 9-year-old friend, Theo, had rolled down the backseat window and the breeze whooshed about the car like a crisp autumn lullaby. Then, Theo hollered these words into the wind:
He spoke without explanation and required no feedback. We were not audience. We were witness.
When my turn came, I was more than ready. I had a pretty good idea on how school worked from spending a whole year studying my older sister’s kindergarten customs. Change from PJs to school clothes after breakfast, get your lunch from Mom, and hustle to the end of the driveway to catch Mrs. Riding’s school bus. Plus, Bell had already taught me how to write my name, how to count, and how to tie my shoes. School was going to be a cake walk.
On the big day, Bell and I entered Midway Elementary with excitement and I walked into the first act of a day I’d waited for my whole life — through the open double doors and past the glass-encased office, where a secretary waved from inside, toward a single hallway ordered from youngest to oldest grade, where I watched my little feet march along the gray carpet squares, and then to a doorway covered in colorful posters, a glittering gateway to a real place I had only imagined: kindergarten. Bell gave me a little nudge and was gone.
There was a lot Bell left out of her after school debriefs. First, I would have liked a heads up on the importance of those initial conversations with the kindly Mrs. Hicks, who wrote everything down in a tidy notebook. “Go on, count as high as you can,” she said. “1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10,” I sang out with ease, then added a-zillion to wow her. I knew most kids had never even heard of a-zillion, much less understood it to be the highest number in the known universe. Next, if mom and dad had ever funded Bell’s ice cream money nobody ever mentioned it to me. After lunch, all the kids stood in line and purchased popsicles and pushups and ice cream sandwiches with coins they kept in their pockets. I didn’t even know I wanted pockets in my dress.
And then there was the unarticulated lunchtime ritual, which went something like this: take your lunchbox and find a place to sit outside. We were dismissed alphabetically, which in my case meant one of my first school lessons was on the unfairness of having a last name that started after A. Why should the Andersons go first every single time? When they finally got to the P’s, I grabbed my lunch and hurried out to the blacktop. Everyone was already paired up.
I hitched up my knee-highs and walked over to two boys who looked interesting. One wore a striped polo shirt and glasses and the other was someone called Jeff that I remembered from playtime. I stood before them like a messenger who knocks on your door and then forgets the message. “Will you be my friend?” I blurted out. “No,” said the first one then pointed at Jeff, “We already have one.”
We hadn’t done a single math problem that day, and yet somehow I understood how to make a perfect 90-degree turn. I walked exactly opposite from them and spied two girls eating their lunch quietly. I tried again. “Will you be my friend?” They scooted over and motioned to a shady spot for me to sit down.
Last night I had a dream
that it was Halloween
and I had to dress up as a girl
And I was wearing high heels
and riding on a skateboard
and there was a boy laughing at me
who saw my image when he looked in a mirror.
And I went swimming
in a pool that grew
until the edges disappeared
when I found myself
in the middle of the sea
where I met a girl who turned out to be me.
And for a moment I saw you too
at the lowest point of the wave,
on the highest part of the sway.
And you whispered something
that I couldn’t hear
as a vacuum sucked me down
into a city where people lived
and none of them had faces.
And they cut me open and took notes
and I think I might have died
when you swam in through the window
and saved me.
One ring light, one white-papered background, a smart phone, and an app.
The photo station.
In the back of the conference room, the organizers had arranged for attendees to capture semi-professional photos. Some used this opportunity to take a solo snapshot, but many others grabbed a conference buddy and headed to the photo station to document their relationship.
When I saw the pictures created by the setup, I realized that I’d seen it before. The lighting and white backdrop created those perfect images where ordinary people looked like glamorous superstars. No busy patterns or photo bombers to be found— just smiling faces caught being fun, charming, and beautiful.
I know some people who would have rolled their eyes at a staged photo booth, where happy strangers posed for pictures they later texted to themselves. But I’m not that cool. I wanted a postcard for my story too.
I waited the whole conference expecting that the walk to the back of the room would just happen naturally. But on the last day, I was only a voyeur into the world of memory making.
And then, I remembered that the night before I had met someone. While most others were sipping wine and cocktails at the evening gathering, Kelley was enjoying a beer. She smiled while she spoke, enamored with the discovery that we were both writers. We had other things in common too. She was the mother of two girls. I had three boys. She loved technical writing. I hated it.
Kelley’s blue eyes sparkled when I complimented her geometric earrings. It just so happened she supported mission-driven businesses who prized both fashion and social justice. I left that night with new businesses to follow, purchases to make, and a case of the warm fuzzies. Kelley was my people.
When I saw her the next morning my brain loaded a wonderful thought into my consciousness. I found her on a bathroom break and said something that sounded like a cross between a joke and a marriage proposal. “Will you be my photo friend?” I asked motioning to the set up in the back.
Turns out Kelley isn’t a ‘Why Not?’ human. She’s from the country of absolutely, the land of eye twinklers, the home of the great big huggers.
Neither of us knew how the whole picture taking thing worked, from the invitation to the tech — all of which made the experience more fun. What’s more charming than two grown women’s awkward attempts to enter their friendship into the permanency of a photograph?
You should have seen our big, cheesy grins. Not so much in the pictures but in the discovery. Because we had found one another — two generous heartbeats fluttering about the earth.
I eventually learned kindergarten. It helped that I was good at it. I liked getting all the answers right and doing what the teacher said. All As in spelling and arithmetic, line formations and returned library books, glue sticks and glitter. Jeff became the boy I chased at recess, and Bell eventually stole his heart away from me. I beat her up on the tire swing and told her she could have him. I had a zillion reasons why he was rotten to the core.
When I started 1st grade, I thought my elementary school acumen would help me accomplish great things. But it was only the first week when Ms. McKinney left us unattended and a boy named Adam showed me the flat staple on his pointer finger. “It don’t even hurt,” he said. This was simply too magical for me. I’d always assumed that staples were sharp and they had to cut paper to bind the pieces together. If Adam was saying stapling his own finger was painless, that was worth knowing for myself. I placed my index finger under the big stapler and pounded it hard with the surprising force of the curious. The betrayal hurt more than the two tiny holes in my hand. Fucking Adam laughed his head off and showed me his parlor trick, an already closed staple balanced neatly on his fingerprint.
“The best thing that ever happened to you is you.”
— From the Good Book of Dr. B.
There are worse things than loving the world enough to try it on. There are worse things than trusting people who let you down. There are worse things than occasionally forgetting your significance.
You could lose your curiosity. You could trust no one. You could listen too much and for too long to the wrong voices in your head.
But don’t do that.
There’s a reason Bell didn’t tell you everything about school. There’s a reason God did not save you from yourself. There’s a reason the angels bless us and laugh at us in the same breath.
Oh Victoria. You don’t want a book of everything. Nothing is as valuable as a lesson born from a discovery you make yourself.