See Me

I know this is something I’ve written about a lot, but apparently there is something about it that I’ve not quite been able to put into words, because it continues to bug me. Not in the sense of being mad about it, but in the sense of having not being able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

The matter in question is the power of presenting perceptions, and to what extent they should be employed or kept honest, and what keeping honest is.

It really fascinates me. It fascinates me how the uniform has power. My brothers commented that simply by donning plain white aprons while working on food for the wedding we helped put on recently, everyone instantly began treating them like they were professionals and in charge. Their skills and capabilities had not changed in the slightest, but lo, the power of the apron!

Student uniforms; organizational uniforms; sports uniforms; olympic uniforms; graduation uniforms; military uniforms; even just a good suit. We like to say “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but really we do. Our brains go through so much sorting and processing to try to understand who we should respond in any given circumstance with all it’s complex variables, and a lot of the data we take in is through our eyes. There was a cool study one time that showed how we take context so drastically into account: the same hand, the same glass, the same position, all presented with still photos. But by the settings the frame was shot, we rapidly interpret whether the glass is being raised in toast, raised to clear the table after a meal, or raised to throw as a means to do harm.

And I know it. I could pull up a long list of examples, but my most recent one was just the wedding I just went to, and it was almost palpable to me how much power one is perceived to have when one is well dressed. There are countless examples of people dressing differently and getting totally different reactions or assumptions about who they are. These examples are almost always presented in the moralizing light that we’re all so wickedly biased and judgemental, but I always feel as though a great point is being missed.

You have the power. You have the power to dress yourself. You have the power over your presentation. You get to decide what people see. You can wear that classy dress, you can wear those slouchy jeans, you can wear the long skirt and the head scarf. Or not.

But when people do grasp this point, the invariably seem to spill into “oughts.” So you ought to present yourself well. So you ought to worry what people see when they see you. So you ought to make an effort. But I don’t like that conclusion either. I don’t see this as a duty of which is often derelict, but rather a curious and profound opportunity for art.

That sounds far too grandiose. But I don’t think that you “have to” or “ought to.” I think that you can, and that it’s a skill. And that just tickles me pink. It’s an illusion, just as much as putting a portrait on a canvas; it’s a story, just as much as a slim little novella; it’s an act in a fleeting scene; and it’s music in the sense it can make you feel such a shocking range of emotions.  You don’t have to; but you can.

To me, the question is: aware now of the power, what shall be done with it? Some people turn to conformation: if you move to this country, dress like people in this country dress. Some people turn to rebellion: defy the current culture with an alternate message. And these are rightly so called expressions. As expressions, there isn’t a “right” or a “wrong” but a question of who you are, and perhaps more than anything it is really a confusion of who I am that keeps hanging me up.

I don’t have anything wrong with my current stock of jeans and t-shirts. I am pretty okay with what they say or don’t say about me, which mostly is summed up in the thought that on the day to day, what matters is just that my body is comfortable and covered. But there are times when I glimpse the magic, and I wish I was a more practiced changeling. I wish I had more skills and materials for painting my face and arranging my hair and becoming a different person, if only for a few hours. I wish I had interesting enough clothing in enough depth of closet to be able to tell totally different stories when I felt the occasion called for it.

I wish and I wash, because sometimes I wish I had a whole hat collection to wear, but other times I’m honest and admit that I don’t really like calling attention to myself so I’d probably never wear them in public. “Not liking attention” is a valid expression, so don’t yell at me for it. What stylistic changes can I affect, and still come across as honest? Where is the line between liking something, and liking something on me? Man, when you nail that spot of deliberately put together but not fake, understated but powerfully present, and perfectly suiting who you are–that’s some sort of rush. It feels good.

I know that as with any other skill, it’s something that some people have more of a knack for than others, but that anyone can get better with it if they actually practice. But my jealousy when I see someone who has hit this sweet spot is not that they know or have the means to do something I cannot, but that they know what they wanted to do.

Defined events help guide me. Wedding reception at the yacht and country club? Well, okay then. Tomorrow morning? Um, I don’t know? Which just seems so sad to me because it’s such a wasted opportunity. Not that I have to work that art every single day, but the fact that I can both recognize it as an art and then be incapable of figuring out how to hone that art on any kind of regular basis is to me a disappointment. Of course, there are plenty of things I’d like to get better at, from music to drawing to sewing to a multitude of other things. But for most of those things, I can grasp what the “next step” might be. Yet for this art, which I perceive to be both powerful and beautiful, I can’t seem to figure out my approach, in part because I believe it to require a certain amount of authenticity in order to be beautiful. “Faking it” doesn’t help, because the artful part of it is different ways of presenting yourself. So you need to be in it.

I don’t that I’ve gotten any closer to resolving the issue for myself, but I feel like I have at least defined two of my greatest frustrations. The first is that I don’t think it’s given frank respect it deserves. Appearance seems to be considered to equal shallowness, while art is considered to have great depth. It’s almost as though we are willfully struggling to not admit the extensive effect that appearance can have, and without respect, it remains a shallow field, which it ought not be.

The other is that I don’t know myself. I hate that feeling. I hate the feeling of being a stranger in my own body, and I feel like if I could break through that, so much would happen. The tension of self-consciousness and uncertainty holds me back from swimming (too tense to learn well), singing (vocal cords constrict), learning new skills (inherent hesitation of looking like the fool), dressing and even just carrying myself with the confidence of one who knows who they are, regardless of what humble station they might possess in this life. It kind of makes me mad, because I feel like, of all the things we don’t get to know in this life, we ought to be able to at least know ourselves. And yet so very often that doesn’t seem possible.

Being angry doesn’t help anything, but it might be helpful for me to honestly admit that might be part of why this keeps bugging me. If nothing else, I might have grasped more food for the thought.

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Who We Are

I’ve always been interested in costuming and clothes design, because I think clothes are an “unspoken language.” It’s fascinating to see how clothes can be used to conjure up moods, values, lifestyles. I’ve always thought I’ve wanted to upgrade my wardrobe, but as my time out of state is coming to a close, I realize it’s more than that. I always wanted to try on a different lifestyle.

The kind that always wears long skirts and sandals in the summer, and buys all their vegetables from the farmer’s market. They kind that wear those really cool riding boots in the fall, with chunky knit accessories (like fingerless gloves), and goes apple picking in the orchard and goes for long walks in the foggy mornings with their well-behaved dog. The kind who wears wool winter coats that aren’t black, and drinks hot cocoa with homemade marshmallows in trendy little coffee shops. The kind who greets spring with a whimsical umbrella and rubber boots, splashing in the rain and laughing like a child. The kind who is always in shape, always classy, always doing something fun and adventurous, and apparently is never, ever stressed or runs out of laundry.

Clearly, by the time we get to “never runs out of laundry,” we all know I’m dealing with complete fiction. But I still had plenty of ideological conceptions of things I’d try while I was living here. Some were small things; some were big things. I didn’t do them all, not even a fraction, of course. But I met people who did. And upon reflection, I am surprised to find that they repulsed me.

Not in the sense of greatly disgusted; in the sense of “invisible forces pushing us apart.” We didn’t value the same things at all, and in order to have “that kind of life” you had to have “those kinds of values.” I wanted the life without budging on my values. Because I don’t have a problem with my values, thank you very much (well, most of them). I just didn’t realize they were so tied. I thought if I just “put myself in different experiences,” well, I’d experience them. What I found was that the decisions and actions you had to make in order to put yourself in the experiences were itself a limitation. In the most simple example, I have no interest in embracing consumerism; but how then am I supposed to get all those great clothes? I took one look at my limited budget, and invested in good food. I took one look at my time limits, and invested in sleeping in and quiet walks on the lake shore — not shopping. When I could have carefully powdered my face, I read webcomics.

And by one look, I mean — well, probably not even. The decisions seemed so “obvious” to me that I don’t think I even realized making them. Do we even really chose those things, or are they just part of us? I guess that’s why I found it so interesting. I wondered how much of what I did was based on my surroundings, and what would happen if you transplanted me to a different surrounding. What would I take to then? People say that often once they move away from the people they grew up with, they suddenly find a new “freedom of expression” and you see what appears to be a change in taste or lifestyle.

I’ve always liked the idea that I am independent enough in who I am that I wouldn’t be easily swayed by outside sources, but I always wondered if that was true, or if I was just blind to the sources I was swayed by. Out of state, I had plenty of room to be swayed by other people. In fact, I kind of wanted to. It’s very isolating not to belong, and it’s hard not to think that if you would just conform – even a little! – you wouldn’t be so alone. But I couldn’t do it. Not even a little. I don’t have a religious objection to painting my nails, but do you realize how long that takes? Good land. How many millions of minutes to ladies with polished nails flush away every year. And I do refuse to watch the popular shows, even though that cuts me out of a lot of small talk, because talk about a time-drain. Way too many other things that I value more. Sometimes I even tried to not be such a know-it-all in class, but it was boring and so much effort sitting around in the awkward silence, and I finally figured: oh, well. So I’m a know-it-all. I’m sorry. But I’m bored and frustrated, and no one here really likes me anyhow, so what have I got to lose?

I realize that’s one of the reasons why I want to be back where I came from. Not that people didn’t paint their nails there; they did. But I’m tired of people wearing “athletic tights” and calling them pants, and I’m tired of only-child syndrome, and all the beer talk. I’m tired of people living an up-scale life and calling themselves “poor college students.” Yeah, and also, right. Rather than successfully conforming to a new culture and way of life, I’ve concluded it’s not for me. I don’t want to be successful. I want to be weird. Not “trendy-weird.” I want to be “crazy-weird.” Crazy weird, like the kind of weird that actually somehow leaves a thumb-print of change on the world, not trendy-weird like being featured in publications and making a fancy paycheck.

And apparently, crazy-weird doesn’t wear the cool riding boots in the fall, or the floaty skirts in the summer. Crazy-weird is a good deal more ugly, and doesn’t photograph well. Well, I don’t know. Maybe some peoples’ crazy-weird does. But I keep trying to find a way to make my life photogenic, and I think I just wasn’t made that way. I don’t think I’m every going to do “photogenic.” I guess the question is, why did I ever want to in the first place?

I think because, to me, photogenic also implies a certain level of deliberateness. Things are this way because I meant them to be. But every time I meet someone photogenic, I feel that same repulsion of “honey, you’re trying way too hard.” I don’t want to be trying too hard. But I keep seeking a “somethingness” that says, “ok, you aren’t faking it anymore; this is who you meant to be.” I’m still waiting for a bench mark that says, “ok, you made it.”

Regardless of anything else, I’m certainly not going to find that by borrowing other peoples’ dreams or values or lifestyles. So the only thing I’ve really learned is that I need to be my own weird, unphotogenic self, and only try to do the things that I really do think are worth while. Which are words that everyone says, but then they bombarde you with other words, too, like “everyone should travel and see the world!”

But somehow, I still want to refine “be weird,” too. I want to, somehow, find and define my own aesthetic, but it seems to be so elusive. I guess I’m just not ready to give up on that yet, for better or for worse.

I am losing my freaking mind

Ugh. Between my car breaking down and my cousins stopping in to visit for a few days, I got totally, totally derailed. I have managed, barely, to hang on to diet and exercise, but sleep, mindfulness, writing and more have gone totally out the window. I struggle to find a balance between “the expectation is. . .” and “show yourself grace.”

Tonight, I’ve got a boatload of homework to do, and I’m trying to keep up with my social circle since my remaining time with them is rapidly shrinking. I’m tried, but my mind is racing too much to sleep. Everything is a disaster, and I can’t cope.

So I’m writing. Because it only makes sense to apply the treatment before attempting to function. But so much inside of me is screaming out, “I don’t have time for this right now! Can’t it wait until I’m at least back on an even keel?” But “waiting” until life is right just means we never do it. It’s time to drop the cortisol, and trust God that everything will be okay, because no matter how I cut it, it’s not going to be okay.

There’s this girl in our class who is determined to be very involved in our profession’s professional organization. Honestly, it makes me feel sad for her. She’s purchased the wardrobe, the plane tickets, you name it. She’s campaigned for a position, and raves about the networking, of constantly shaking hands. She posts pictures of herself standing next to people “high up” in the organization. She makes no bones that she came from a “disadvantaged” background (which to me, the fact that one “claims” that title is almost more meaningful than what background they did come from, as perspective is almost all it takes to change the title), and she appears like she has decided to make it her life mission to leave it behind.

But it makes me feel sad, because I feel like she’s alienating herself from the people in our class, and is defining herself by association with people with prestige and power. I don’t get the feeling that it’s genuine; that she genuinely wants to advocate for our profession. Just that it makes her feel very special to go to assemblies in fancy hotels, and she really wants to feel special. She says it’s great, but it’s hard for me to believe her. It seems like a life built around pretension.

I know that I don’t want that. I know that I really want authenticity in my own life, which first above all else requires that you stop lying to yourself. I saw a post on facebook, about someone I don’t know who, “coming out of the closet” and claiming God want him to most be himself, and someone else tearing him apart about how God wants us to die to ourselves. And there’s a part of me that feels like, wait a minute guys, you’re both getting it wrong. There is hedonism, which says “if it makes me happy, it must be right” and there’s honesty, which confesses even sins and doesn’t hide in the garden. You can’t put both of those things under the title of authenticity, when they mean such totally different things.

People nowadays are saying “you do you!” You know, stop giving in to peer pressure. Be in charge of yourself. But it makes me cringe every time. For me, authenticity is not about not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. It’s about being honest about who you are, not about being rude. It’s about not lying to yourself, not about flaunting everyone else’s protocols. It’s not about defiance, it’s about vulnerability. It’s not about being the center of your own little universe; it’s about seeing yourself, in all your flaws and glory, and not trying to shamefully deny either one. And for some of us, we’re as shy about our “glories” as we are our faults, and find it easier to be public in our self-humiliation than our God-given strengths.

This is a struggle for me, a very real one, because I want outside affirmation so very badly. Someone to tell me I made the right choice. Someone to tell me I did a good job. Or not even someone, just bars that I feel I have to clear in order to be ‘sufficient.’ And I know that’s stupid. I know it, because when I clear the bars and and when people say so, I still feel dissatisfied and uneasy. That’s what you say; why should I believe you? It must be because the course was so easy; if it were really, truly hard, I wouldn’t have done so well. Comparison dominates. Am I as smart, as kind, as personable, as brave, as hardworking, as. . . and then you pick whoever you know who is at the top of their field for each category, and of course you don’t measure up to your ideal of the perfect person, a composite of a thousand peoples’ strengths.

And it scares me, because it still seems to have power over me. I have to . . .I must. . .I couldn’t. . . Or even holding back parts of myself because I daren’t have them critiqued. So much of my writing and creative efforts, I hide as much as I can. Because it’s not good enough to clear bars. It’s not good enough to see the light of day. Even as I mourn my grandfather burning most of his paintings because he determined they weren’t worth keeping.

What can be said? There but the grace of God go I? I’m not sure that I’m not there, just in a more stealthy, insidious manner. What do I want to say? God, have mercy on me, and save me from my own darkness, the one that keeps trying to be enough. I am not enough. Only You are, and I can’t seem to keep my attention on you longer than a sneeze. Come rescue me.

 

 

 

 

I missed two days of writing, and I felt it. My insides are getting churned up. But at the same time, I sit down and I’m not quite sure what to write. So this one is probably going to be all over the place.

I caught a glimpse of myself this morning, and thought that I appeared to be a woman–noteworthy only because I look so young for my age (and often feel younger than I am), that I’ve been mistaken as being 7 years younger than I am. Well, that lead to thinking of all that has happened in the last seven years, and what I’ve learned, and how I’ve changed, and how it feels like it has been an exceedingly long seven years that would just never end.

But then this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of myself again, reflected in glass windows, and all I could think about was what an unattractive individual I was. This is so common it’s almost cliche, but it bugged me a lot because I’d spent a good part of the afternoon getting distracted by how beautiful so many of my classmates were, each in their own way. That’s probably also cliche, but that’s okay; it’s the truth.

Eventually I came around to realizing that really all I know is that I’m unattractive to me. And being attracted to oneself is generally called narcissism, and is greatly frowned upon. So, you know, it’s not all bad.

But it’s just that I realized the first reaction to feeling unattractive is to try to figure out how to “fix” it. Like before I’ll have any worth, I have to run around fixing things and improving things and making things better, and then . . .then I’ll be ready. For stuff. Things. Life. As though life would be somehow inherently better if only I were better.

And that’s the sad thing. That we sometimes feel like we have to “fix” ourselves before we can start enjoying or participating in life, and that until then, we’re sub-par. And my brain knows that’s not true. But I didn’t feel great leaving campus anyhow. With all of those thoughts running through my head about being invisible, being an object of derision, one more statistic. I don’t really feel like changing–I know who I am, and I am being me. But feeling bummed that who I am is someone people take note of.

I know this is stupid. Hormones, probably, even. Just today when my teacher was checking to see if I had to drop out of her class for health reasons, she got all excited when she found out I could stay, and went on and on about how I ask good questions, etc. And so she notices, right? But it’s different. It’s not someone liking you, the real you. Immediately I thought of all the friends who’ve bailed me out and taken care of me over the last semester. But they weren’t anyone from school.

Maybe that’s part of it. That I’ve never really felt comfortable with any of my classmates, always trying to win their friendship instead of falling into that easy friendship that you don’t have to try for. The friendships that I thought were made on campus have been greatly strained over the last semester, and I don’t think those friendships were what I had hoped they were. Two years, and they still feel awkward and complicated and polite on a certain level. And I watch my classmates, and most of them look like they belong here, that the campus is their natural habitat. And they interact easily with each other.

And this is not the first time I’ve felt myself standing on the outside looking in. I’ve done it many times; and you’d think the smarting would wear off. Instead it takes on a mocking tone: yes, still. Always. It’s you, of course, so you’ll always be standing outside and looking in.

And it always makes me wonder what’s wrong with me that I can’t seem to enter circles. “Everyone” else can, why not me? I used to wonder if it was my upbringing. Or perhaps there was something “wrong” with me, like an autism-spectrum type of malfunctioning. I’m beginning to suspect that I’m just different, for all the good and the bad that implies. One of my brothers used to complain he hated being fake to make people like him. I indignantly replied that I wasn’t being fake with people, and he allowed I was just more of a people person than him.

I’m finally starting to see what he was saying. I mean, I can chat people up. I can be friendly in the grocery store. But being “friendly” doesn’t help me out over the two-year long haul, and I can’t fake that I like sitting outside looking at our phones together or talking endlessly about someone’s pet cat and I can’t pretend I like drinking or short haircuts or yoga or trashy attitudes. I can’t squeal over instagram posts, or swear about job situations.

So I’m on the outside looking in because, really, I don’t want to go in. Sometimes I find people who are also on the outside, and sometimes we become fast friends in a way that makes me wonder how two people can just know with the most minor interaction that they’ll stick together. But that’s rare, and for the most part, that’s ok. I can’t handle too many people–I’m a small groups or one-on-one kinda person.

But other times, I look around, and it seems like everyone else has got theirs. Their friends, their significant others, their multiple social circles. And I just feel like, hey–what about me? Why doesn’t anyone want me?

They do. It’s not like I’m totally alone. But I am the stranger on the outside looking in. The polite stranger. The cheerful stranger. The people-person stranger.

I could spin it that it was the price to pay for being independent and unique and brilliant. Maybe, in some shade, some of that is true. I do think it’s not a sign of something be “wrong” with me any more, even when sometimes it feels that way.

But I guess I’ve spent a certain amount of time, wishing people or someone would “discover” me. When you realize mostly that no one is looking for you because you aren’t something they want, it kinda smarts. But having hashed it all out, I almost begin to think that it’s more like I belong to some kind of secret society, and that we recognize each other when we find each other. And there’s not very many of us, but we do have something that others don’t. What? Je na sais pas. One has to assume there are many of these secret societies out there, each with their own “thing.”

Why should this be a comforting thought? I suppose because it is a thought of “belonging” and it is the sense of “not belonging” that weighs me down. It is not so very much that there is a certain individual I wish would notice me or a clique I want to join. It’s the sense of feeling alienated and isolated that I just stew in all day at school that wears me out. Two years with the same group of people, and still on the outside of it. It’s not going to change in these final five weeks.

The fearful thing, of course, is that it will never change. And since it’s a secret society, you can’t look up the membership list, so you never know how long it will be between chance meetings that lead to real friendship. I go through a rather lot, I think.

I don’t want a people that I belong to; I want people that belong to me. I doubt very much that phrase makes sense to anyone other than me, but it does make sense to me.

Last night, I had an epiphany. I don’t like my glasses.

Then I had to figure out why. What was it that made me not like them? What my mind kept coming back to was hearing the echo of what people said when they saw me wearing them. “Hipster glasses.”

No offense to Hipsters. And almost everyone in my class who wears glasses wears a similar style. That’s all fine. But it’s not me.

When I tried to think about what I didn’t like about Hipster, my first thought was that is seems to me that whoever is following trends is not much of a critical thinker. I dismissed that. No, I’m sure there are plenty of critically thinking, intelligent individuals who like the aesthetics of the Hipster vibe.

I came around to thinking this: Hipster styles are almost always worn ironically, with an implied smirk. Even if they dress like a hobo, it’s with a smirk. That was actually what got all this started – I had the heat down low (’cause I’m cheap that way) and kept layering on clothes, and I caught myself in the mirror and thought, “My Gosh, I look like a hobo!” with some level of delight. And then I saw my glasses, and my face fell. My Hipster glasses. My ironic glasses. But I’m not an ironic hobo, I am an honest to goodness, enthusiastic hobo. Hobo dressing makes me feel close to my poor, rural roots, and my poor, rural ancestors. It reminds me of who I really am, and who I really am is anything but urbane or sophisticated, no matter how many letters I’m in the process of putting after my name.

Curiously, this whole discovery process made me happy. You see, I went out on a limb to try these glasses, because I said to myself, “Self, you are always playing it safe, always afraid someone is going to comment on your style, and you aren’t really experimenting to find out what you like or looks good on you or you want. Be daring. Try.” And I tried. And for the first several months, I thought I liked them. I thought, “For once, a change is good. No one told me to get these. I just dared, and I did, and I look good in them!” But what I like even better about deciding I don’t like them is that maybe, possibly, perhaps, I’m starting to grow a backbone for myself.

Not leaning in to make as few ripples as possible. Just trying to be me. And as hard as they may be to find nowadays in the ocean of acrylic frames, I like gold wire spectacles. Either that, or steampunk googles, but I’m told they’re not very practical nor professional.

It’s just a drop in the bucket. There are other drops. Walking down the bike path with my cape swirling in the wind and thinking, “I enjoy this. I want to be more weird like me.” Wondering why I have so many clothes that I don’t like to wear, and realizing I got what I did because it was “acceptable” and “affordable” and not because it was “me.” I just told my Mom to keep her eye out for polo shirts on sale, and felt sad while doing so. I wear them because they are cheap, count as professional, and fit me passably well. But they do entirely nothing to reflect who I am.

I used to think  jeans and t-shirts were my uniform, but I’m dissatisfied with that, too. In part because “jeans” doesn’t mean what it used to me. They used to be durable and rugged; not any more. T-shirts used to mean no fuss, no muss. Now if I’m wearing women’s, I’m trying to find ones where the sleeves aren’t too short and the neck isn’t too deep, and the fabric is actually comfortable. Or else I try to find men’s, but then it strains across the bust and I have to slit the sides to make room for my hips. None of any of those things reflects who I am.

Most things don’t. Sometimes I complain that it’s hard to dress as one would like when one has no money, but even that’s not really true. I mean, it is true, but even if I had a much bigger budget for clothes, what’s on the racks just makes me sad.

Title Nine and such have some really nice things, but they all say, “hip, comfortable lifestyle, I’ve got money.” Athletic wear is really “in,” and my classmates wear it to class all the time. I’d blush to go out in public with nothing on my bottom half besides tights, but it’s the new normal for them.

I’m not a polished professional, though. I see those jackets and skirts and professional pumps, and I just think, “ugh.” For me, it wouldn’t feel like I was dressing sharp. It would just feel disingenuous.

I’m really tired of wearing shapeless, unflattering clothing. But I’ve yet to find, for affordable or out of my price range, clothes that look like me.

I’m learning. A little bit, here and there.

It doesn’t always come together into a cohesive picture, though. I loathe carpeting. I like dresses and comfortable leggings make me brave enough to wear them. I miss the linen pants someone gave me once. I think that probably vests would be flattering on me. I like flat and flexible shoes. Sometimes I practice putting my hair up, and I like the old-fashioned vibe it gives me. But then I have to wear a hat, because it’s in the teens outside, and when I get to class, my hair just looks messy and knotted.

I know that even though I like delicate things – like gauzy linen, and lace, and gathers and ruffles, and piles of fine layers – I’m not delicate, and delicate things don’t look good on me. I know I love the mystery and adventure of steampunk, but I’m actually just not dark enough to wear it. When interacting with people, I tend to be all smiles and bubbly and laughing. That doesn’t really mesh with a bronze octopus around your neck.

I know a properly fitted jacket makes me feel pretty awesome, especially if it’s double-breasted. I know I’ve yet to find pair of boots that speak my language, although I really want such a pair. I know I’m not modern. I wish I could find hats that fit my small, tiny head.

You know, I don’t know much. I just feel like it’s time to get more serious about trying. Because I’ve been thinking about Hipsters and irony. Sometimes I’m not sure that they really like the way things looks. Sometimes I think it’s a self-protective irony. If you aren’t trying to look sophisticated, then it can’t sting when someone says you don’t look sophisticated.

I’m saying that because I can see myself in it. I fought my body so hard when it decided to grow up. Unable to stop it, I dressed in loose-fitting over-sized t-shirts. Back then it was defensive to the idea my body was changing. Now I think it is defensive to not feeling pretty or beautiful. If I were threatened with not looking pretty, I would say, “I know. I dress practically. I dress for comfort. I dress affordable. I’m not trying to be pretty.”

But all that really means is that I want to be, and I’m afraid I can’t attain. Better to deliberately step out of the race than to compete and fail miserably. The cowardice in me sits on the sidelines, and so my clothes are almost all things that don’t look much like me at all.

So daring to try wildly different glasses frames is a step in the right direction. Daring to reject them is better still. But it’s not enough.

I want to become more unabashedly myself. But it’s hard work and it’s uncharted territory, and it’s hard to know what to invest (time, money, space) in. It’s hard to know if it’s worth it, or if it’s one of those things were it’s nice, but it’s really not important in life. But part of me says I have to try. Going along is slow death.

The theory is good, but I’m just really not sure what it means in real life.

 

 

The Conclusion of the Matter. . .

So I don’t know what I want.

Is this really an uncommon problem? I can’t imagine it is, but time has shown me again and again that I do a terrible job of imagining people different than me.

I didn’t know, for years, what I wanted to “be”. You know–job, career, occupation, defining title, all that stuff. One of the frustrating iterations of that uncomfortable topic, I believe I told a friend that I was quite confident I could be anything I wanted to be, I just had no idea what I wanted to be.

I am not so very much sure how much has changed. I guess (1) I appear to know what I want and what I’m doing in a much more socially acceptable way now, and (2) I’m no much less sure of my ability to make what I want happen, once I do figure it out. Yay for growing up?

Growing up also means that I can now say – if mostly only ever to myself – that what I want most is a family. Not a career. You can plop yourself on a career path with reason and logic and planning. A family requires another person, especially when you mean “family” not “kids”. I want the whole deal, not pieces of it here and there.

Some people then delicately say, “well. . .are you looking?” Um. . .no, I’m walking around with my eyes closed? Yes, I’m looking! I’m looking inward at myself and outward at the people around, and distantly toward what might be, and backwards at what was, and scanning around the present wondering what I will see in retrospect and wonder why it wasn’t more obvious at the time.

I think people don’t really mean “looking,” though. I think they really mean “hunting” or “pursuing” or “barging forward head on.” Usually, they mean a variant on “loosen up with alcohol and see who still texts with you when you’re both sober” or maybe even “you stupid girl, have you not yet learned how to flirt?” (Or maybe those are two of the same things?)

Well, what happens if I’m not interested in a guy who has to get at least half drunk in order to talk to me? What happens if I think flirting is a stupid way to interact and honestly, an inappropriate way to act with someone you hardly know? Yeah, I’m boring/not fun/take life too seriously/whatever. That wouldn’t change on the other side of drinking or flirting.

People say, “just live your own amazing life, and the right person will come along at the right time.” Yup. Or not. Not hunting people down doesn’t automatically turn you into a magnet, but being a chaser can often work to push people away.

Since clearly when people say “look” they mean something much less passive, I just really wonder a girl is to do. A girl who really does take life seriously, and commitments. A girl who is passionate about what matters most in life and about caring for people. A girl who does think life is full of many more important things than the pursuit of “fun” – fun is good and all, but it’s not a high and lofty goal. A girl who would like to just sit quietly together on the couch, not Go and Do, but just Be. A girl who doesn’t want to be a wife to be a princess, who doesn’t want to be a mom for the sake of cuteness, and a girl who would rather cook in than dine out any day of the week.

Be true to yourself, they say. Well, myself isn’t gregariously moving through a multiplicity of social circles, sifting for potential prey–or partnership, or however you mean it. Myself isn’t a drinker or a flirter; myself thinks that by the end of the week it is necessary to quietly withdraw and spend time patching up the inside of me so I can handle Monday when it comes around. (And I do handle Monday, thank you very much, but if I don’t spend the time patching me up on the inside, I probably will be in tears by Friday.) Myself loves to create, which is frequently a solitary occupation.

Look, you say? What do you mean, look? Look where? Where do you find people who find it endearing that you frequently curl up and hide from the world? Expand your social life, they say. Well, yes, leisure time is lovely for those who have leisure. And money. And enjoy the company of those with money to blow, I guess. Hey–I’m sorry. It’s just that a lot of the more affluent people I’ve met are boring. They’re more caught up in the Doing and Going and Spending (and Drinking) and seem more confused and bored by the Being and Making.

There are things you can do socially besides drinking, they say. Sure. I want to go to this Vocal Ensemble concert this weekend. I will show up in time to get a good seat. And sit. And enjoy it. And go home. Another solitary endeavor. I wouldn’t mind enjoying it with someone else, but the someone else to enjoy it with has yet to materialize. They say, get involved in your community. I’ve been trying for half a year to start volunteering at a shelter, but it has been excruciatingly difficult to mesh my school schedule with that. Join clubs, they say. Because even though you hate playing clubhouse, you might meet someone else who also hates playing clubhouse but is doing it anyway? And the main goal of churches is heating up pews and handing over cash.

Do I sound bitter? I don’t want to be bitter, whether I sound it or not. But there is a certain amount of frustration of wondering what you are supposed to do to “meet people” while being “true to yourself” when you are “intelligent, introverted” and alternately “sweet” or “a real firecracker”. And plus also, a point in your life when you have very little time and even less money. Seriously: how do you make lemonade with those lemons? More to the point, how do you make lemon meringue pie, or those awesome lemon custard shortcake bar cookies or lemon cake with raspberry filling and cream cheese frosting? I’m trying to take stock of realistically what I have and where I am in life, and honestly wondering how to break outside of your own little world while still not destroying yourself in the process.

I could make a self-congratulatory list of all I think I have to offer. I could making a tentative, querying list of what I was hoping to find. But I guess mostly I find myself pretty confused by the mechanics of the whole thing. How do find someone you would like to walk the rest of your life together with? The trite answer is by living the life that you want to be joined in living, but when that life doesn’t take you (much) into the circle of others’ lives, the finding seems pretty improbable.

And partly I’m wrestling with suspicion that there really isn’t much that can be done; that “finding” is just one more illusion of power that is really outside of our control. Like the endless sales of variously flavored snake-oil, if there was “a” way, it would be well documented by now, and this post would not be a tired re-hashing of the wails of countless single people who wish they weren’t. Mankind – generally – learns how to solve the problems that are solvable.

What we are left with is heartache, because heartache is generally unsolvable.

On Becoming Ordinary

One of my goals for going to graduate school was actually to become ordinary.

In my mind, it went like this: I am always a superfluous student. I do more than I need to, know more than I need to, and am the source of answers to so many people who are stuck. I stress myself unnecessarily because I’m trying to be perfect. So when I go to school this time, I will be a “B” student. I will relax. I will do fun things. I will not study–cough, hardly at all, anyway. I will learn to try to be ordinary, because being extraordinary at school is not worth it: it comes at too high of a cost, and its rewards are not great enough, and there are too many other things to attend to.

Some, this has happened. Some, I have let go. Some, it is okay(ish) now if I don’t get 103 on the exam. The weird thing that I didn’t expect, though, was rising up of others. That the “normal” would come up. Really up.

I don’t mean I thought I was the smartest person in the world. I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t mean that that I’m floundering, unable to comprehend, either. Or that I’m out of my league. Actually, what I really mean is that I’m in my league, possibly for the first time ever. And it feels really, really weird.

At first I was going to use the word “humbling” and I guess there is some of that. I mean, I think I noticed myself thinking the other day that I wasn’t special any more (yes, I laughed at myself when I noticed what I was thinking). But partly, it’s also weird. I realize I am using that word a lot without really explaining it, but that’s where I’m at–I don’t really know what to make of it.

I studied for this last exam harder and longer than I’ve ever studied for anything before, ever. Again, I have to point out that it wasn’t hard to understand. I’ve seen too many of my relatives go to engineering school to be silly enough to pretend that this is “hard to comprehend.” But the shear volume was staggering–and it wasn’t just concepts; it was concepts and skills and facts and numbers–hands on and under pressure and performing and no forgetting and time limits. And again, I must point out that my typically studying for most exams this semester amounts to reviewing my notes the night before, which I think still makes some of my classmates want to stone me–and now, in graduate school, I think many other classmates are doing something similar and scoring similarly. I felt a little guilty, realizing it was the hardest I’d ever studied–knowing how so many other people have had to study that hard so often.

But there is also this odd feeling I’m not used to of “running in the pack.” Not leading the pack, and not deigning to retire from leading, and leisurely taking a break in the middle of the pack. And not falling to the back of the pack. Just hurtling along with everyone else, just like everyone else. . .

And this is not who I am. I am not anything like anyone else. My life doesn’t look like anyone else’s and I don’t fit anyone else’s molds, and no one understands me. . .and yet I’m running in the pack.

Kind of.

If I were really one of the pack, I’d go out drinking with them and skiing with them. I’d make crass jokes with them, and I would study with the them while painting my nails and/or drinking. I don’t drink, ski, make crass jokes or paint my nails, so I can’t very well do it with them. But I used to feel like my studiousness was part of my otherness. I just took things that seriously; no one else would really get it. Now, no matter how studious I am, there is someone just as studious or more studious.

Do I want to go back to being “special”? Not really. It is more stressful. People think you have all the answers. Your best never quite seems good enough, because even when it is good enough, it seems unsatisfying, unresolved, what you had to do. But in all honesty, I’m still not sure what to do with “ordinary”. How do you do “ordinary” well? If I am ordinary now, what to ordinary people do? I feel very tentative, peering from behind bushes, wondering if I can really join the others–if they would let me join.

I suppose this sounds like a trite “it’s lonely at the top” kind of post, but it’s not. I mean, it is lonely at the top. And the middle, and the bottom, and everywhere. That’s not the point. The point is that shifting cultures, shifting castes, joining a different tribe–it’s not as simple as maybe it first sounds. It doesn’t matter if it’s up, down, sideways, or all in your head–there’s still so much to learn and think about. And it still always involves a loss of some piece of self-identity, or perhaps a better way of saying it is that it involves a smelting of part of your self-identity. What is must be heated, deformed, made liquid; what is not true must be burnt away as false. And as you cool, you do so in a new shape or form–but even this is not the end, as life continually refines you, ever distilling.

And I think part of the odd feeling is being in that liquid state. It’s hard to not want to grab on to something to define yourself. Conform to others; adopt a chip on your shoulder; joint a movement; withdraw into whatever you do know as true about yourself. There are a lot of options, and I think which we chose is most often just taking the path of water–which ever is easiest for us. I’ve felt out almost all of those options this semester. I think I most often withdrew into whatever I knew was true about myself, but mostly because anything else took energy, and I was emotionally exhausted.

I don’t know what will happen next semester. I don’t think I will really become ordinary, in part because I don’t really believe that ordinary exists. I guess mostly I’m finding myself in that odd spot of finding out that I was right: so much of my challenges and learning while in graduate school has nothing to do with the curriculum. But I hope that it does make me a better person. And it’s tempting to get caught up in words like accomplished, socializing skills, more definition, more carefree. . .but I would hope it would create in other things. More patience. More gentleness. More wisdom, discernment. More bravery and courage. More hope. More joy. More love.

Change is always hard, but it can be good.

Sweetpea in a Pod

I think you should take note of the things that surprise you, because they tell you something about yourself and your expectations, although sometimes it takes a while to figure out what.

Right now, I’m surprised by each and every time someone (other than my grandmother) has called me “sweet.” And it’s a lot of people, and the number is rising rapidly, and pretty well confuses me every time. Me? Sweet? Well–I didn’t think I was mean. Or brutish. But sweet is pretty far to the other extreme. Sweet is for girls with princess-like delicate features. Sweet is for girls that don’t know how to get angry. Sweet is for cute little giggles and always and up-beat attitudes, and people you could never not-like.

In other words, definitely not me.

Well, maybe the giggles, sometimes.

But, still.

Still. . .despite my protestations to the contrary, if I look at the words I would used to describe myself, I guess I do presume to think of myself as a bit brutish: stubborn; proud of my knowledge and abilities; determined to be right; unrefined; needy; short-tempered; a know-it-all; bossy; angry; fearful; self-absorbed; unsatisfiable; short-sighted; ungrateful.

And maybe some of those things are true. Maybe all of them. But I am more hesitant to talk about the other side, cautious that I’ll be accused of being self-flattering: patient to teach; encouraging; gentle; empathetic; loyal; caring; nurturing; protective of others; and maybe many other things that I dare not take upon myself.

But–sweet? Sweet makes me wonder what kind of a liar I am, that they could think that. Have I gotten so well at hiding the darkness that they don’t know it’s there? Or is all the world so dark that it makes me seem brighter in comparison–hasn’t anyone else ever said a kind word to them?

Deeper still, underneath it all. . .I think sweet is word used on people who are admired and wanted. And more than anything, I’m not sure I dare believe that.

Who, you?

We were talking about eating disorders today, and I think one of the most insidious things is that it’s not always obvious until it’s “too late.” Some people are just naturally skinnier. Some people do just eat less. It’s not like a big huge red flashing light goes off over a woman’s head saying “EVERYBODY!! I MISSED MY PERIOD BECAUSE I’M NOT EATING ENOUGH!!!!” By the time it is that glaringly obvious, the person has been struggling for a long time–often years–deeply entrenched in their difficulties. Like anything, the sooner it is caught and appropriately addressed, the easier it is to successfully turn away from it. Once they’re emaciated waifs, it will be obvious there’s a problem–and even harder to help them find their way back to three square meals.

But I think that part of the problem is not recognizing there is a problem–not just because it means people won’t be able to get the help and support they need, but also because it’s a habit of callousness–something that just happens to “other people.” No one makes it a goal to “get anorexia” and most people who do fall into that pit remain in denial for quite sometime. “Awareness” is such a cheesy, over-used word nowadays. People are “raising awareness” for everything–so much so that no one pays attention anymore. I asked a classmate why she was wearing an Alzheimer’s awareness shirt, and she honestly couldn’t remember who it was who originally inspired her to do the Memory Walk. I can–deep in my gut, always, I see the word Alzheimer’s and I see my grandfather. People may be more aware now that “Alzheimer’s” exists, and that it’s a “bad thing” that “needs  a cure!”–but do they really understand?

And everyone knows about anorexia. It’s like, not eating and stuff, for girls that, like, worry about the way they look and stuff, and then they crazy girls starve themselves. . .right? And then I tell people, “Your sister was getting caught in this too. I had to explain to her what was going on. She didn’t realize.” And they look at me so surprised, so quizzically. “Huh,” they say. “Huh; I guess I never really paid attention.”

Do you think it’s a “someone else” problem? Only something crazy girls get? I’m telling you, by the time it’s obvious, so much damage has already been done. Girls who don’t care about fashion. Girls who don’t stare at themselves in the mirror. Girls you’d think would “know better”–because it isn’t even about knowing. Girls who seem to be dedicated to healthy lifestyles.  Girls who seem so polite and sensible.

You’re aware of “anorexia,” but are you aware of the girls who have it? The women? You can do all the walks and all the events, but do you know who you’re wearing that shirt for? It isn’t the “what” you need to be aware of. . .it’s the who.

Looking

You know what’s become taboo? Talking about what you find attractive. I mean, it’s still cool to be like “oo, he’s hot!” but if someone says, “Marry a well-groomed man” it’s all “Oh, grandma!” and “don’t judge a book by it’s cover!” You can’t go around talking about what you like or don’t like, because that’s all shallow and superficial and unaccepting and, well, not politically correct.

The thing about taboo subjects is that it tends to make us less honest. Not just with each other, but with ourselves. I’ll staunchly insist with the stuanch-est that I don’t care about the outside and that it’s only the inside that matters. . .and squash the thoughts–pretend I didn’t have them–about a guy who has nice forearms or a voice I love to listen to. Shallow! Superficial! The TRUTH I don’t want to admit.

I was thinking about this today–yeah, after noticing I kept sneaking glances at some guy oblivious to the world with his device-with-ear-attachments. One thought that came to me is that maybe it’s not so shallow as we’re often admonished.

I like to look at hands. Hands tell you so much. If a guy’s hands are all soft and smooth and weak looking, well, forget it. You have to know what a hard days work is like. You have not not be a stranger to the concept of labor. You know, it’s funny, but I can totally spot the difference in a heart-beat between a gym-rat and someone who came by it honest. There’s a difference between having a body and knowing how to use it, and you can see it just in the way a person sits, the way they carry themselves and the working balance between muscle groups.

I dismiss any guy with low-riding pants. If they aren’t mature enough to figure out how to dress themselves, I can’t say I find myself attracted. Same reason why I lean away from trendy-stylers–I’m looking for someone independent enough and strong minded enough that they aren’t being carried along or blatantly fighting for the sake of fighting. And whether male or female, I always find myself guarded around anyone too well polished. There’s a difference between carrying yourself well and being caught up in yourself–or horribly insecure about who you are.

We say we can’t judge a book by it’s cover, yet–well, the cover is there to reflect the contents. We are always looking for clues to someone’s character–their morals, their ethics, their values, their lifestyles. Some of those things are more attractive to us than others. (My grandma values the $$$, and finds the expensive looks veeeery attractive. I don’t, so . . .I don’t.)

I guess some people would read the paragraphs I wrote above, and be repulsed. How can she so casually judge another human being, when she knows nothing about them except they way they look?! Beyond rude! Bigoted monster!

But you know, the other thing I was thinking was that part of the reason why I squelch the (true) things that I find to be attractive is the fear or reciprocation. Yeah, I’ve heard women dreaming about some tall, handsome, rich dude with an Australian accent before. . .but which one of us thinks we’re the fulfillment  of longing, the picture of ideal, the one that someone has always dreamed about? If we can’t meet that standard–and we know we can’t–what right do we have hold one out for “what we want”? But pretending we “don’t want” is dishonest at best, and very damaging in the end. Those insidious expectations we pretended we never have, and are crushed when they aren’t met.

So while I was eating my hamburger and checking out the  hard-working, straight-shooting, good looking, not-paying-any-attention-to-me guy, I found myself wondering what sorts of things guys might be looking for. I know that’s as diverse as the individual, not whole group, and, loaded question though it may be–I’m really not talking about anatomical ratios. I look at hands because I think it tells me a lot about someone’s character. What might someone be looking to see in my hands? Shapes and sizes for the moment disregarded–deeper than that, beyond that, what is the question looking to be answered?

It may be an over generalization–why not? I’m in so deep already–but I think it’s pretty safe(ish) to say that we girls tend to be looking for signs of strength and reliability, someone who has the power to make us feel safe. That can take many forms–after all, some would say that money is a sign of strength and reliability and power, yet I find that totally unattractive. It doesn’t make me feel safe. So clearly I’m not trying to set up a standard of What Girls Should Look Like.

But I don’t think–maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that guys tend to look to girls to find an image of someone who is stronger than them (physically), a reliable rock for them to turn to, someone with power. Where’s the allure, then? What message is supposed to be engraven in the hands?

Is it really the equally cliche idea of nurturing, caring, gentleness? Because that would be sweet. I’m totally not changing my bone structure, but I excel at those care-taking kinds of things. I do that, day in and day out, and my body in response takes on the shape of it, the cover bearing witness to what is being driven from inside. I never look the way I want, the way I wish I did. But I can’t keep my body from betraying the fact that my hands know how to hold a baby, that my eyes are used to seeking out the people who are hurting, that the way I walk displays my work ethic.

But I guess we all run into our insecurities at some point. I may be confident of my character, but I am very unconfident that anyone is looking for that kind of character. I can run up my own quiet list of “things I look for in guys” but the list of “guys looking for what I think I have” is strangely much shorter, by my observation. Or imagination. Our imaginations can be quite the turn-coats, I think. You can imagine your dark-haired Australian, and I can imagine my cello player with marvelous hands–but can either one of us really imagine those guys being happy with us? They’d be moving on, finding someone more suitable to their level. Pixie-ninja landscaping artist, or something. Definitely some girl who’s got her act together, not this bribing-oneself-into-existence-with-mint-mocha-instant-coffee nonsense that I’ve got going on over here. Or some girl who’s a lot more fun to be around, playful and risk taking and seize-the-day-oh-yeah, not the tentative, shell-hiding, reserved girl sitting on this bench, namely me.

With the same brush that I paint what I think I want, I paint, too, what I think I’m not. I can’t help but think that in a large part, our admonishment to “not judge a book by it’s cover” is really a plea that someone, please, anyone could see past our insecurities to the parts of us that really matter. That someone could guess that there is more to use than can be blatantly stated in large print on the first page, and want to find out what that “more” is.

Some people have said that the most attractive thing is someone who doesn’t need anything–e.g., isn’t looking for someone else to make them whole. I can sort of see where that thought is coming from, but I don’t agree. Whether we ignore that part of ourselves or not, I think there is a part of us that is looking for That Which Would Make an Awesome Team. That which both complements what I am not–the “things that I want”–and sees beyond my lack (“what I think I’m not”) to what I really do have to offer. Being what I want without being able to look beyond my flaws really isn’t all that attractive; it’s intimidating and frightening. Being able to see what I have to offer without offering me anything in return isn’t attractive, either; it’s threatening and imposing and demeaning. Finding both at once really seems to be the only way.

. . .and nigh near impossible.