We really aren’t that special

I have been reading “Grace for the good girl” by Emily Freeman. I normally flee from titles like that, but I’d been reading Emily’s blog, and she kept hitting tender places I didn’t know were tender. So I broke down and bought two of her books, even though their covers made me shy away.

Well, it’s been peculiar. She’s describing me more thoroughly than most of my friends can. And every time I think, well, no, that’s not really quite like me–she shifts focus ever so slightly, and everything is looking at me again. The chapter I just finished was on responsibility and weakness. I’ve always blamed my attitudes toward responsibility and weakness to being an older sister/daughter and having a lot of brothers, respectively. But Emily didn’t have the kind of family growing up that I did, so I guess, “Nothing has come upon you except what is common to man.”

I wasn’t really getting into her “responsibility” section, until she started talking about “the purse” mentality. Taking it upon yourself to stock your purse so that no matter who needs what, you’ve got it. Physically, and intangibly. Yes, and yes. The whole purse section hit home like she’d been watching my life played out like a movie. And then she says,

For all the times that I rush around, both physically and mentally, trying to fix and influence the people and circumstances around me, I simultaneously feel resentful that I am the one to manage it all. Why doesn’t anyone else fix this? Why do I have to be the one? Even though I was the one who wrote the job description and hired myself to fill the role, I want to both quit and fire myself.

Amen, sista.

I thought, from the cover, this was going to be a feel-good, every-thing’s-okay, light and fluffy kind of book. It’s actually kind of uncomfortable to be reading a book written, apparently, by someone sitting inside my head. I wasn’t really ready for it.  I wasn’t really ready for someone to nail every. single. weakness. I have.

Oh, and that’s another thing. “Weak,” she says, “Is not a four-letter bad word.” Honey, I have more brothers than you can probably count, and they’re like dogs that way. You don’t let them smell blood, or fear. “Hiding behind a mask of strength and responsibility is a lonely place to live,” she says. Ow. Yeah, it is, actually. I try so stupidly, ridiculously hard to pretend I’m strong and responsible,  and I’m disappointed when they fall for it. To turn her own words back on her–sure, I believe that “weak” is not a four-letter bad word. For you.

She’s making me think, and honestly? I didn’t expect that either. (Arrogance, much? Yes.) One of the things that she keeps turning over is that we really aren’t going to discover anything new about ourselves; we’re only ever going to really re-discover old things about ourselves. Things that we accidentally or on-purpose buried as we grew up, but are really still US, deep down inside.

It jarred loose something I hadn’t thought on for a while, but I realize is (still) true. I hate everyone looking at me. I hate being the center of attention. I hate people looking at me. Why? I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure it out.

But I remember my horror and mortification at loosing a baby tooth during a social gathering, utterly convinced that now everyone would be staring at me, and I just could bare that. People did wind up staring, since I was dying six kinds of deaths of complete embarrassment, but no one had the foggiest idea why I was upset.

I want to be hidden. I want to hide. I don’t want you to see me or notice me. When I find out you were watching and I didn’t know, I feel this odd sense of disquiet settle over me. I thought I was invisible. Even though I was talking animatedly and laughing.

I don’t want to wear bright colors, or flashy clothing, because that might attract your eye. I don’t want to tell you about any of the ways I might be different, because then you might see me. I’ve hidden my grades from my classmates for so long, I do it now without thinking about it. I referred to my solid, strong A for a final grade as “acceptable” to one of my professors, and he suggested that I at least meant “Acceptable.” I felt a big caught off balance. What did I mean by acceptable? I meant, I guess, that I was happy with my grade, but I wasn’t going to say how happy, because that would be drawing attention to myself. Sitting at the place of honor at a feast would be horrible, because then everyone would be looking at you. Stop looking at me!

Why? I don’t understand that part of it.

Everyone loses baby teeth, I get that. What’s the big deal? People wear bright clothing in the street all the time, and they aren’t followed by small mobs of people, just staring at them. Some people can confidently get good grades without being obnoxious about it.

I can’t say it’s because I want to fit in, because I like being different. I can’t say that–well, I guess  do want everyone to just like me, but what does that have to do with bright colors and baby teeth?

If I have consistently striven for any one thing over the years, it is to be quietly invaluable. I want to be that hidden gem, that maybe few know about–but, oh! What a gem. Those clever few can see what an incomparable, incredible human I am. But, only, you can’t tell me, because I wouldn’t believe you, but just make me feel very valuable.

What?

I confuse even myself. This doesn’t make any sense at all. Yet when I look back over the patterns in my life, I see the same things played out over and over. Do I want praise and recognition? Yes, of course. Kind of. After a fashion. I’ve repeatedly dodged recognition, down-played my accomplishments, sneakily helped people out, and generally felt barren, alone, and undervalued.

I do this even in my writing. One time I reviewed something on my Mom’s blog, as a guest post, and it kind of got spread around. I nearly died. I was so abashed and self-conscious. I don’t think it’s supposed to work that way, but it does for me. Um, hello? What’s the point of writing stuff you’d like anyone to be able to read and enjoy if you’re just going to turn into a self-conscious freak the minute you start showing any signs of success?

I don’t know. Maybe by the time I get to the end of her book, I’ll stumble on some other insight as to what has been making me tick. I thought it was just because I was weird, but if I was that different, how could she be writing a book about me?

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Jane Eyre and the Truth

So I was talking to a friend the other day (and I realize I have a bad habit of starting random sentences with the word ‘so’, as though the topic needs justification) . . . (and now I’ve derailed my thought.)

(Let me try again.)

I was talking to a friend the other day on the topic of love, and was suddenly inspired to explain myself from Jane Eyre. I was telling her she would need to be like Jane, who loved without letting those whom she loved define what her love should be. To truly care about someone is not to be molded by their “If you really loved me, you’d. . .” To love someone is not to give them what they want over regard for what is right. To love someone is not to agree to be conformed to their preconceived images of who you should be. To love someone is to hold to yourself–what you believe is right and what you believe is true. Because otherwise, you aren’t truly giving them your love; you’re giving them a lie, something you don’t really believe in, something that isn’t really you and isn’t really from you. The only way to really love is in truth.

Jane Eyre, as the unrealistic portraiture of piety, nonetheless illustrated the grievous struggle of loving someone, and yet not pleasing them. Of caring profoundly and deeply for them, and yet not doing as was asked–pressured–guilted–bullied– of her to do. It hurt. And when we read it, we hurt, because we know what it’s like to have to make that choice. And when Jane stands firm, we feel such a wash of relief–because, in our hearts of hearts, we know that those kinds of lies can’t lead to happiness. As much as it is a torment, especially in the moment of sudden vulnerability, to say “no” to those we really do care about. . .we really do know how that story ends. And we really don’t want that for Jane. Or for ourselves, even though we’re scared to death that we don’t have the guts to be so resolute. . .or maybe even because we’ve already been there, and failed, and regretted it, and don’t want to see that replayed in ourselves or anyone else.

***

What makes writing worthwhile? Is it “being realistic”? Does it only count if it’s non-fiction, and really-true? Is it only okay if it’s fiction if it’s Inspirational (in your best announcer’s voice)? Does it have to be something you agree with? Is it supposed to be shocking and controversial, in order to be worth anything?

I write. . .sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Sometimes bluntly, sometimes more obliquely. I want to write well. What does this mean?

In my experience, it means writing the truth.

What does that mean?

My sister paints, and although her talent is already high, you can see her skill improving. The realism she is able to achieve keeps growing. Yet we both sit around and complain about these art instructional books, these books made not by artists but by technicians. Technically, their realism is awesome, but their pictures are dead. There’s no life to them and  no reason to look at them. They’re void of the truth that echos within us all.

My sister–she seems to understand mood. I don’t mean she’s moody (that’s me), I mean that her paintings–even the ones that frustrate her because she got the perspective wrong here and the shape was off over there–compel you from the inside because they grasp ‘the way it makes you feel.’ When you see her skaters on the frozen pond, let’s face it–the painting is too small, the figures indistinct. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot to actually look at.

But it tells the truth.

When you look at it, you know, you remember, you recognize inside of you what it is like on those winter afternoons rapidly fading to evening. You know the feeling of cold air inside of your nose. You know the camaraderie of playing outside with others. You know how exhausting it is to fight the snow and the layers of clothing, but how exhilarating to  actually be outside and alive, and moving.

I don’t know how she does it. With the colors, I guess. (Well, obviously; she’s painting, all she has is color.) With the lighting. I don’t know. It’s this intangible thing that makes everyone say, “Wow!” even while she says “It didn’t come out the way I wanted it too.” And as she explains the flaws she thinks she sees–well, she’s right. She’s not technically perfect. It’s not exactly realistic.  But she captured a piece of the truth, and shares it with you, the viewer. Our ears prick up, because we can hear it resonating within the part of us that can’t be measured.

When I have found good writing, I find the same thing. You don’t look for perfect realism. You don’t insist it can’t be made-up out of someone’s head. What you look for is the truth, the thing that says–“I don’t know how you did this. With words, I guess. Obviously; that was all that you were using. But somehow, you captured something that I thought only I knew. And if we’re finding the same thing, independent of each other, it’s a piece of the truth.”

When I write, I want to write like Jane Eyre was written. No–not a Gothic, Victorian love story. Not a society-challenging critique. Nothing so brave and daring as all of that. Although–actually, maybe more brave and daring than all that. Because, essentially, in order to tell the truth, you have to stop hiding yourself. You can’t proclaim something that will send shivers down the spines of those that hear it and still stay safe inside of your own little shell, where you keep cloistered away who you really are.

You have to have a lot of courage to stand up and firmly say, “This is who I am.” But until then, you really don’t have anything of value to offer. Scraps and facades and pretensions and trying to figure out what people want and how to give it to them. . .it’s bad writing. It’s bad living.

Jane Eyre has helped me explain part of the truth. If any of my writing is ever to be so valuable, I have to learn not to hide. I have to learn to not chicken out and pull back. I have to not listen to the St. John’s and the Mr. Rochesters that would tell me what they want, what I should do. I have to insist on who I am, and not flinch away. It’s the only way that anyone will ever read anything I’ve written–fact or fiction, stark or flowery–and say, “Oh, . . .I don’t know how you did that.”

Good Girls, Bad Boys, and the Man Behind the Curtain

I read a book by the name of Shades of Milk and Honey. I am still not quite sure why it was called that. I was given ample warning from everything from the dust jacket to the book reviews that this was to be a very Austen-esque book. (I’ve read a few of Jane Austen’s books, but generally thought she needed a good editor.) Anyhow! I’m getting far afield. The point is, I wanted a relaxing quick read to ease my mind and get my imagination going. I was a bit disappointed, because the book followed the trope so very closely that I began to find the experience boring.

The ironic thing is that there is this scene in the book–it goes like this: the dark, brooding, reclusive hero is busy brusquely telling our Plain Jane Heroine (which almost rhymes) that she does his work a terrible disservice to pay attention to the man behind the curtain; she ought to be entirely transported by the effect, and pay no mind the mechanisms. The irony comes in that–while I disagreed with dark, brooding, reclusive guy, I agreed with him. I like to look for the brush strokes in a painting, and think about the hand that formed them. But on the other hand, the story failed to transport me, and I was left looking at the mechanisms.

The plain, Jane older sister. Her beautiful, somewhat bratty younger sister. The handsome, charming gentleman that isn’t. The younger sister’s love-life falling into disgrace. The dark, brooding, reclusive man who falls passionately, deeply, irrevocably and suddenly in love with the Plain Jane.

Why is this the story? Why does it catch us? Why does it work well enough to be repeated?

Some people say that Good Girls like Bad Boys. Good, dutiful, responsible, polite girls, who are the conscious of their consciousless younger sisters. Girls who always behave, and hide their passions and emotions deep inside, even from themselves, as much as possible.

Maybe. Maybe it is the “opposites attract” idea, the idea that one needs to bring life to the other, and the other to temper the one. Maybe. I don’t really think that’s it, myself.

Maybe it is the other thing I have heard disgustedly said–that women think they can change men. That we think we can turn the dark, brooding recluse into the handsome, charming gentleman. I would argue vigorously against this stance; I don’t think this is what draws us in at all.

Is it all sour grapes? The sister who has all the beauty and winds up with the miserable life, the handsome, charming gentleman that wasn’t? Maybe. Maybe there is a little jealousy; maybe there is a little of finding lacking what we’ve been told or thought we wanted.

But I think this  all is just edge of it, just the edge.

When I started working, I would find myself bracing myself when I walked into the waiting room and discovered there waiting for me a grouchy, reclusive, brooding man. Or woman. Either or, but I think more were men. And I would tell myself, “These men are your father.” My father, who is chronically in pain. My father, who is desperately shy. My father who loathes small talk, and feels terribly incompetent to perform it in anyway. My father, who is slow to trust, and assumes that everyone is putting him on, telling him what they think he wants to hear.

The Man in the Waiting Room was scary, but you don’t show fear in front of scary things. I would bring them back and very patiently, very determinedly, kill them with kindness. I smiled, I explained in depth, I avoided asking any questions that weren’t necessary, I made extremely good guesses at topics of conversation that would connect with them. I taught them to trust me enough that they would tell me things. I made them smile. I even made them laugh.

They would leave, and I would heave a small sigh of relief. I won. Almost no one–I do not believe a single cantankerous one of them–held up against my assault. People who scowled at the secretary, people who looked like they were sucking on lemons, people who pretended to fall asleep in the waiting room so they wouldn’t have to admit there were other people there. Sometimes I could turn them around in a day. Sometimes it took weeks. But I made them all smile, and every one of them was a victory.

I think when men write about these things, it goes like this. There was this monster. And I killed it. And it isn’t scary anymore. Aren’t I great? And I think women write the same story, differently. There was this monster. And I made it smile. And it isn’t scary anymore. Aren’t I great?

Because really? Really, Mr. Rochester was a jerk. But he was wild, and he was scary. But in the end, he wasn’t–because of Jane. We all like to think that it doesn’t matter who we were born as, doesn’t matter the shape of our bodies, or the shape of our noses–we can still conquer the terrifying things. The Men Who Don’t Smile. The People Who Don’t Like Us. Those Who Are Critical of Everything. The Ones Who Have Forgotten How to Smile.

It wasn’t changing of the scary person, as much as it was just breaking open the shell. The same person, but no longer holds the power of fear over you. It’s a different kind of victory than slaying dragons, but it’s a very real victory anyway.