I have a Polaroid photograph of myself, standing in the Ocean City High School library wearing a worn gray acrylic sweater that I found at a thrift store, because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my oh-so-edgy girlfriends at the time that I wore frumpy, $2 thrift store sweaters and listened to Tom Waits because that's where I had tried to fit in.
I have kept this photograph on my book shelf, half-way hidden behind a small box of Japanese incense sticks and a handful of "important' receipts, for perhaps a year. Occasionally I look at it, and I stare at my smile and wonder why I ever thought I wasn't beautiful. Why when I was that girl, I thought I was a just the most awkward, unloveable girl ever born, and should probably just stay that way. And it seemed I was confirmed. One evening at a friend's house, she turned to me and said, "I think we're good enough friends now... They say you used to be such a pretty girl. What happened to you?"
Exactly. I have a scar on my forehead. Even if an evil zealot threw acid on my face because I tried to go to school (try being a girl in Afghanistan), I would be a minor flicker on the world's list of "people messed up by sh*t that just happened."
The girl in the ill-fitting gray cheap thrift-store sweater is the one who answered that question with a blanched look of panic and a "Uh, I had an accident." And when she pressed for more of an answer, I actually felt myself shut down. I answered through a veil of post-traumatic stress disorder and shame. The double-sided coin of being different, even if it is something that hurt YOU. Not any other way, lest the other way around.
I was so self conscious, I heard those words and felt like I might as well have died. I should have died. Spared everyone and myself the horror of having to look at the lines that marked my darkest, direst days.
And here we fast forward. To a time when I had finally decided that the girl in the picture, the one who was so shy she hid her hands, even though she was the "smartest girl in the whole school" and was going to the Ivy League. Even though she had the lead in the play and was the captain of the tennis team. That girl was so shy, she stood to pose for a photograph in the library and hid her hands in the sleeves of her shirt. To reach for anything would be absurd.
Who grants gifts to broken things?
Apparently time does heal all wounds. Or at least make them bearable. Less sinister. More relational. We learn to take what we can from how things change us. I, for example, have no ability to differentiate between a look from someone who thinks I'm attractive and someone who thinks I'm a spectacle, unless they catch my eyes. Our eyes don't lie. So much else in our faces can though. It's astounding.
I see people stare at me, and I judge whether its because I am different or because I am beautiful depending on my mood. If I feel strong, I get shy under the glances of admirers. If I feel ashamed, I imagine they are horrified at my scars. I am a monster. Wrecked.
When the truth is, who the hell knows what anyone is thinking when they look at you.
He could be grimacing about a fight with his wife. About laundry. About a daughter asking an embarrassing question.
She could be shy about having kissed him too soon. Too wrapped up in pleasing her boss to even actually see the woman she's staring at and scowling towards.
We all assume the reactions of others are rooted in the things we worry about ourselves, and we are seldom right.
I wish I could tell the girl in that picture that someday, the woman she would become would look at her and think she was exquisite, and to reach out and embrace every inch of her life. Thrust those hands out of those sleeves and stand proud.
Because that had always been the right thing to do. The way things should have been.
A shining, beautiful smile gracing a child -- who would one day become a woman who would look back at herself and wish for things to have been different, but know that things happened as they did to make today. And realize the elegance of a revelation that leads to self forgiveness.