A few weeks ago, I was speaking at Gaston College, giving a talk that I had already given a couple times, when I was inspired to start the conversation a whole new way. I’m not sure what moved me to tell the story this way, but something did, and so I stood up in that auditorium and said, “I want to tell you how I got here and by here I don’t mean that I took Highway 85 to 321 to get here. By here I mean how I landed in this auditorium to talk about this radical idea of self-acceptance when what I set out to do fifteen years ago was be the best possible high school teacher I could be. Because since that moment, I’ve had several different careers, but they have all centered on this one fundamental fact: what matters most is that we absolutely positively know who we are and how we are meant to be in this world so that we can live our passion and purpose and give our gifts to the world. The world has so many problems, it has so many needs, and for every minute that any one of us spends distracted by some belief we have that we are not good enough, that we are not already what this world needs right now, that’s another minute that the world remains unhealed. And the world’s needs are too great and our gifts too important to solving its problems for anyone of us not to be doing what we are meant to be doing. But, first, I want to tell you how I got here.”
At eight years old, my best friend Jenny and I conspired to get rid of our fat. It was 1981. We barely watched television. But what we did watch- The Dukes of Hazard-
clearly had an impact.
Even now, I can remember Jenny and I walking between our two houses, whispering about how we wished we could get rid of our fat.
Years later, I would come across this picture (and others) and startle at the fact that there was no fat to be vanquished.
Along the way, though, something else saved me from the worst in myself. And it came packaged not on the television but in books.
As the daughter of an enlisted solider, there wasn’t much money for extracurriculars. My dad, however, came up with his very own version of extracurricular activities for me, and, truth be told, it ended up being so life affirming that it changed the trajectory of who I am today. Every Saturday morning, my dad loaded me into the wood-paneled station wagon and drove me to the library on the military base. There, he read the newspaper while I took as long as I wanted to select my stack of books for checking out. There was a kids’ room at this library. And I would start at the far wall with the top left hand shelf and work my way row by row, shelf by shelf, wall by wall around the room until I had honed in on the books that I just had to have that week. When I walked out, the height of my stack rivaling my own, my dad never said said, “You can’t read all that in one week.” He simply put out his hands to help me to the counter. Every Saturday afternoon, I’d sit in the corner of my room and fall into a book that I couldn’t put down. I was the girl who read in the bathroom, at the table, in bed way past bedtime. I couldn’t get enough of books. And those books? They made all the difference.
Really, you might be asking, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great or Harriet the Spy made all the difference?
And they did. Because what happened is that I started noticing how plucky these girls were, how well they knew themselves, how clear their voices were. I want that, I would think to myself as I read. So I pulled out paper and started writing feverishly, becoming my own version of Sheila, Harriet, Ramona, Pippi, Annie, etc.
What I have since learned is that writing is this incredible gift into yourself– it is one surefire way to discover what it is you know, what you think, how you want to be in the world. Writing can be the ultimate truth teller. And so by starting to write at such a young age, I figured out who I was and how I wanted to be before I got into the worst possible self-doubt of adolescence (not that I was devoid of it, I just believe I suffered from it a little bit less than I could have because I had already done some of the hard work of figuring out my way in the world with the earlier angst that brought on that self-discovery through writing).
Now, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t without my hiccups, that life came without pain. It didn’t. I had plenty of pain, lots of hiccups. But every time I mourned what felt like the betrayal of a friend or my invisibility or the loss of a boyfriend, I would go find the page. And I would write my way through it and out of it. Yes, I cried over that page. Yes, I fretted; I worried; I steamed. And I recovered there, too. Writing was the tool I turned to when I started feeling different because of my values and my looks. I could have turned to other tools– in fact, for a short period I did just that and my weight fell dangerously low during my quest to be a super girl until a teacher grabbed me, told me she would not allow me to do that to myself, snapped me out of it, and propelled me back to the page for my answers and processing and away from my body project– but reading and writing were always the places where I found not just the most answers, but the most honest answers.
Those honest answers- that self-awareness- became my addiction– knowing who I was and how I wanted to be in the world made me feel safe in a world that felt fundamentally unsafe. And when I struggled with the way that my looks and weight and clothes and socio-economic status were different from my peers, I returned to the page, asking it my questions, looking for answers, knowing that the honest effort of knowing myself and being real would ultimately feel more like home than selling myself out for a diet or a man or whatever might do.
But it was more than the writing that saved me. Early on, by middle school, I found that what I most had to offer others wasn’t my looks but how I made them feel– the laughter or hope or solution that I came with always seemed to matter so much more than whether I looked the way that I wanted to look (which was taller and thinner with sleeker, lighter hair). While I might have pinned to look different, the people in my life didn’t seem like they were waiting for that or wanting that from me. Processing that discrepancy– that I felt like I needed to look different to matter– with how others treated me– that they were receptive to what I had to offer right now– was a big lesson for me. I could desire all those different attributes all I wanted, but I still, it seemed, offered value in the package I was in right now.
And so I started to focus on that– what I had to offer right now. What if I never got taller, thinner, or sleeker hair, I wondered? Are these things only worth doing with the promise of looking different? And they weren’t. They were worth doing right that moment and every day moving forward because they made my heart happy, made me understand my worth, and were my current solution to the world’s needs. And so I turned fully away from the idea that life was only meant to be lived with meaning if I looked a certain way. I turned away from the idea that the only worth I had was visual, and I fully embraced the notion that what I had to offer was the passion and purpose I felt inside me, that my soul was the gift I gave to the world.
Welcome home, I told my soul. You will always be safe here. And, just as I would for my child or a friend or even a stranger, I kept my promise.