February 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
For my 30th birthday, I wrote a little story.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (I’ve always wanted to say that!)
She wasn’t exactly the person I would have chosen to sit next to at the bar, but when you’re competing for an open stool with about fifty other Saturday night partiers and a casual acquaintance waves you in next to them, the least you can do is say hello, how’ve you been.
We’re not close friends, this girl and me, despite knowing each other for basically ever. We just haven’t spent a lot of time together and besides, I feel like we live really different lives. She’s kind of a loner, and I’m not happy unless I’ve got eight different friends bouncing around me.
But that’s a lame excuse for not really getting to know someone and I realized as much, as we sat next to each other at the bar and made small talk about our lives. I’m going to actually get to know her tonight, I thought suddenly. It might not work, but lately I’d been trying to talk less about myself and listen more to other people’s stories. You’d be surprised how many times you can hijack a conversation by relating everything the other person says to something you’ve experienced. I discovered that sometimes just listening is much more interesting.
The bartender slid a Blue Moon in front of me and gave her another whiskey on the rocks. As she took a sip, I noticed her lipstick was the exact shade of raspberry I’d been trying to find for ages, and I complimented her on it.
She gave me a strange look. “Thanks,” she said, a little hesitantly. “You really like it?”
“Yeah, I do!” I almost started rambling about my Estee Lauder Siren Red lipstick that had been discontinued and how that exact hue of pinkish-red had apparently never been duplicated despite there being literally thousands of other lipsticks out there… but then I remembered my promise from before and I stopped.
“You always have on great makeup.” I said instead, which was the honest truth, I swear, not just some ritual girly compliment. I certainly didn’t think it would have the effect it did, though.
Her eyes filled up with tears and I thought she was angry before she looked down at her drink. “Do you know, I almost didn’t wear any makeup tonight? What difference would it make? It never does any good.”
“I… well, yeah sometimes it is a hassle but…” I trailed off, and she instantly filled in the gap.
“I’m sorry. I’m just having a really bad few weeks. I was going out with this guy, and I thought he really liked me, but of course he didn’t. So I came in here to have a drink to relax and wouldn’t you know, he’s over in the corner with some leggy blonde bitch.”
Being a rather leggy blonde myself, I kept my mouth closed and waited.
“It’s always the same,” she laughed harshly. “I can’t get past my own insecurities. I’m never good enough for myself. I know that guy isn’t worth my regret but in my mind, it’s just another case of me not being enough.”
I spoke cautiously, not wanting to hurt her more, but trying to understand. “Not being enough what? Pretty enough?” I was baffled for a second, but then I got it. “You don’t like the way you look. You don’t think you’re attractive, do you?”
Her eyes flashed as she laughed again, but I didn’t think the anger was directed at me anymore. This was a more internal hatred, a deep, festering wound. “No. I don’t. I hate the way I look. I deliberately avoid mirrors when I’m out in public. I’ve literally never taken a selfie. I hate my body. I hate my face.”
I sat quietly, listening to the bitterness in her voice. The bar was crowded and noisy but her low, loathing words seemed to echo in my ear.
“I bet you never hear a voice in your head. How could you? You’re tall and thin and pretty. Guys are always asking you out. How could you know what I hear, what goes on in my head? Every day, this horrible little mocking voice is in my ear, in my head, jeering, laughing, asking me why I even bother with a diet when it doesn’t help, why I would ever think a skirt looked good on me. Look at those rolls, the voice taunts me. You look so gross. Seriously, how could you think that dress was a good idea. Every day, a whispering, mocking, running soundtrack to my life.” She stopped talking abruptly, and then looked right at me. The anger was gone; only misery showed stark in her eyes.
“In over twenty years, I’ve never once looked in the mirror and been happy with what I saw.”
Her voice cracked with pain and I thought to myself, we are all so full of hurt, so burdened with the weight of our struggles. I didn’t know what to do, because to say the expected “You look fine! You’re beautiful!” would have been unbearably cliché. She would have shut me out instantly. And I realized, sometimes when the depth of someone’s pain is outside your skill to heal, you just have to spill your own guts as well. Sometimes only sorrow can comfort sorrow. So despite my earlier resolution, I set my glass down and said, “Do you want to know what my mocking voice says?”
“Sure,” she shrugged, staring down at her hands, still speaking quietly.
“You’re right,” I began, “I don’t hear a voice when I look in the mirror. I don’t hear it when I try on clothes at the mall or walk past the glossy magazines with their tall and slender models. Instead, I hear the mocking voice when I see wedding pictures on Facebook, or baby pictures on Instagram. The mocking voice scoffs and jeers at me, a nasty little companion inside my head. It says, “Ha ha ha, look at all these people who managed to do this one thing, this one simple thing. All these people were able to fall in love, and stay that way. All these girls had the man they loved say to them “I want you, forever”. How many people get married each year? How many have babies? It’s like the most common thing we do and you couldn’t even manage this. You couldn’t even manage this one simple thing. So many girls get pregnant that we have a law saying you can kill your baby if you don’t want it, that’s how often it happens. And you couldn’t even have a baby by the time you’re thirty, you complete loser. You have literally wanted to be married for your entire life and you couldn’t do that yet, either. You are thirty, and you are such a failure.”
I stopped there, because I was about to cry and heaven knew I’d spent enough time crying in public for the past two years. She turned and looked at me over our drinks, and I saw true friendship in her eyes for the first time. “I didn’t know you had a voice in your head too.”
We all have a mocking voice. We all hear the smirking scorch of its acid tongue behind our flaws and failings. You flunked another class, idiot. You quit another job. You got wasted and slept with another stranger, you slut. You can’t lose those fifteen pounds no matter how hard you try, fatty. You have something wrong with your brain, who would ever want you, crazy? You let so many people down this week. You’re too busy to be a good mother. You’re too lazy to build a career. You’re too dependent to be a strong woman. You’re too independent, it turns guys off. You don’t look like Karlie Kloss, you don’t sing like Taylor Swift, you can’t write like Hannah Brencher. You don’t have any best friends. Why do we torment ourselves so, girls? The voice mocks on: Another black-out wasted night. Another diet started only to be abandoned. Another one night stand, ‘just for fun’. Another drug or another pair of shoes or another gym class or another guy to text just so the loneliness doesn’t eat you alive at night. You suck. The mocking voice slithers into our heads and down into the pits of our stomachs, hissing contempt and disgust for all our vulnerability and mistakes.
There are always wounded pieces of our secret souls, even in those who seem to have everything we’ve ever wanted.
I turned to her- this unique, interesting, intelligent girl who had somehow deceived herself into thinking she was not good enough- and I said, “Listen to me. This is what I would make you know if I could: you are not alone. We are all missing pieces inside; we all hear those poisonous thoughts. But you can’t let the mocking voice win. You have to shout over it, drown it out with love and friendship and truth.”
“I don’t even know what truth is,” she said bitterly.
“Then keep looking for it. Keep searching. Look for it in the beauty of humanity, in the commonplace faces of your everyday life. Listen,” I said again. “A funny thing happens when you stop hating yourself because you don’t have the answers, when you start letting others in, letting them help you through the pain. You realize that love can silence hate, goodness can drown out contempt, that the world is full of simple, joyful voices. Our lives are songs, they’re stories written in sunlight and in shadow. Find what makes your voice sing. Find the words of your story; write it bold and bright or quiet and humble. It’s your voice. It’s your story to tell.”
She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and gave me a measuring look. “What does your other voice say?”
That made me laugh. I’d been trying to figure it out for so long. But I gave her the truth, because what else did I have?
“It says ‘Look at you! Your arms are not empty without a husband and child; they are full to bursting with relationships! They are overflowing with true friendship and love, spilling over with the joy of new faces and experiences!’ It says we are made for relationship, that God wants us to be in love with Him and with each other. It says love is sacrifice; it’s hard and gritty and real and when it breaks, it hurts like a knife in your heart, but forgiveness is the mightier sword. It says there are hidden gifts in every person and the purest joy lies in discovering them, in making known to someone that simply to be who they are is wonderful to you. It says there will always be a yearning in my heart, a longing for the strange ache of beauty, because we are restless by nature, strangers and sojourners in a land of light and darkness. We long for mystery and yet love to be steady. After 30 years, my other voice says we are not made merely for this world, we are made to make it better.”
I looked at her again, with her pretty lipstick and winged eyeliner and her dark eyes so full of pain, and I said “Love yourself. The world is a better place with your voice in it.”
I don’t think the mocking voice will ever be totally silenced. We are surrounded by voices and images all the time; we are sharing our lives and peeking in at others’ every day. It’s a habit-forming way to live. Comparison and envy become inevitable. I think the best way to combat them is to decide whose voice is most important to us. Do we have a healthy balance of images in our Instagram feed? If I’m beating myself up every time I see pictures of weddings and babies, why don’t I follow some amazing single women as well? Women who travel and share beautiful pictures of foreign lands, women who are serving others in the poorest neighborhoods, women who have time to do mission trips and rooftop yoga and late-night coffeehouse writing sessions, because they don’t have to worry about teething babies and a spouse’s recent lay-off and balancing motherhood and a career. Because while we are- none of us- free from the mocking voice, we all have so many other voices inside, just waiting to be heard.
October 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
July 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
Thank God for children. I might have gone and tossed myself off into the Susquehanna today if it weren’t for the perfect timing of Leo and Lucy’s visit. My little nephew and niece arrived safely here in NEPA last evening and we spent a few wonderful hours playing together in the big, joyful tumble of people at my house.
Turns out I needed those hours of grace this morning, when I had to deal with a client who told me he was the owner of a company and therefore much more important than “a secretary answering phones.” Oh, I know the old rhyme about sticks and stones and words and bones, but I think it’s fairly evident to anyone who knows me that it doesn’t work like that with me. Words are powerful. Our language is beautiful, a gift given to express our hearts and our thoughts. I don’t sprinkle my conversations with multi-syllabic words for the shallow glory of showing off; I use words because I love the way they sound, or the more precise meaning they invoke. Some people might think I don’t curse simply because it’s unladylike, or because of my Christian beliefs, but those have nothing to do with the fact that I find profanity ugly to hear and say. There are words that are just so ugly. And when someone says something ugly to me, something harsh and demeaning- despite being patently absurd-, it still cuts. It strikes at the deep-down fear I have that people do think that about me: that I am merely a secretary and a secretary is merely a lower class worker. His words hurt me, even though I tried not to let them.
So I stewed and I muttered and I angrily blinked back some tears. I thought to myself that I have brains and ambition aplenty, whether or not people recognize them. However, it wasn’t until I looked at my phone and saw the pictures and videos I’d taken of Leo and Lucy that I realized the truth. When someone treats you as if you don’t deserve basic human decency and respect, there is no better antidote than the unconditional love of a child. Every human being has dignity and deserves respect. I know that. But knowing something logically isn’t nearly as comforting as seeing Lucy toddling on her plump legs towards me, alive and alight with new found freedom. She is a baby, unconcerned with my brains or my position, needing only the simplest things from me and giving back so much more by her sweetness and smiles. I watched the video of Leo running around in circles with me, giggling uncontrollably at the sheer delight of playing with his “Aun’ Ro”. He beams up at me when I chase him on the library field, and throws himself wildly around on the ground to get away from my tickles. He pays no attention to the boundaries of bodies, melting into my lap when he is tired, draping his blanky over his legs and mine, giving me ungrudging smacks on the lips when I ask for a kiss. He is sincerely, perfectly happy, because he is innocent and filled with joy.
I think that if beauty will save the world, it will be the beauty of children, the beauty of innocence.
January 18, 2012 § Leave a comment