Soul Songs #20: Extraordinary Girl

“She’s all alone again wiping the tears from her eyes. Some days she feels like dying. She gets so sick of crying.” *

Though ultimately an optimist, I spent my childhood nights in tears worried about the future, scared I’d never find love, praying for my family. I was so scared I’d let people down and never be good enough. I even had a special pillow that I used exclusively for crying into so my sister with whom I shared a room, could not hear me cry.

I’d cry for hours sometimes. Then I’d take a deep breath, say another prayer and rest with the assurance that tomorrow was a new day and held new possbilities. I’d listen to music until I fell asleep and always awoke ready for the day, wearing a smile more times than not. I would even tell myself that no one ever needed to know how I really felt or how weak and scared I was.

I now have a life far easier than anything I’d known was possible. I’m comfortable. I’m confident in who I am. And I  become bolder and braver every year, more my true unabashed self. My prayers are mostly for others and offered in gratitude.

But I still cry. Comfortable is not the same as happy. Grateful is not the same as fulfilled. But I am not scared. I’m an extraordinary girl in an extraordinary world. I know that now.

*lyrics from Greenday

No Amount of Makeup Can Cover these Scars

“Now, girls, there is no way that this mascara is ever going to fully coat your lashes if you just put it on one side. You have to paint both sides of your lashes, like this. Close your eyes, dear.”

My friends and I looked at each other in shock and horror. “I never even thought of that!” I said, and was greeted with a murmured chorus of me neithers. We were thirteen and fourteen years old and we had been bravely, even boldly making up our faces before school, at lunch, after PE, in the bathroom before classes for which we dared to show up tardy. Just a month before, in fact, I had been re-applying my makeup in the bathroom before fourth period because I wanted to feel confident before our quiz; when the bell rang, I tossed my compact and brushes into my purse–yes, I carried a purse at all times–and ran to class, falling down the stairs and ripping all the tendons in my left ankle in the process. But my make up looked great.

The presenter continued and we leaned in to listen from our seats in the multi-purpose room. All 8th grade girls were seated in rows, surrounded by teachers and staff, as we were given instruction on how to apply our makeup and pick the most flattering clothes for our “season.” The guest speaker was from Nordstrom, an upper-end retailer most of us never entered. She had talked to us already about how to select our best colors and how to flatter our various body types.

“Now, you’re going to need to line your lips or you might as well not even wear lipstick.” This statement triggered my first negative thought of the hour. ‘I don’t have time for some of this,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I could do this just for special occasions like school dances,’ I decided.

I was an honors student, a spelling bee champion, a student of the month, and a tiny little girl living below the poverty line, walking more than two and a half miles to Shumway Junior High so that I could still walk to school and see my friends from my old neighborhood. And I wasn’t bothered by the presumption that fashion and makeup were not a luxury but a necessity, nor by the notion that it was deemed appropriate by the principal (whose name I never knew) to take time from our instruction to “learn” these things. I was bothered by the fact that I might not be able to live up to the standard being set in this assembly.

Applying my makeup this morning before even stepping out to get my coffee and the paper, I am reminded of that moment in junior high when I felt not demeaned, but motivated. I increasingly improved in my make up and hair and fashion skills. I grew to love getting ready in the morning. I found cheap ways to emulate the look I was supposed to create. I studied the styles of the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna and Susanna Hoffs to develop my own look–that, we had been told, was very important. I convinced my mom to help me buy Seventeen and Young Miss magazines so I could research the latest trends and learn more fashion tips each month. And, in our home of liberal political activists, no one questioned this or felt it inappropriate not just for society to set such standards, but for my school to have done so.

I had actually been told, since my first day of kindergarten, to hold in my stomach, stand up straight, and smile whenever I entered a room. It’s funny how it never occurred to me to share this advice with the children I later nannied or raised. But I still think of it ever time I enter a room, just like I know to apply my makeup and fix my hair before leaving the house–to go to the supermarket, even.

As a high school principal, I  rarely found girls in the bathrooms applying make up or fixing their hair. They’d be late because they were standing in one of those circles all fiends make when sharing stories and gossip, but  never because of hair or makeup. I wonder what they would think of my friends and I. Were we more vain, more superficial? Was it just the 80’s? I don’t know. But, even at 42, I hear the voice of the stunning fashionista telling me, each morning, to make sure I coat both lashes fully with mascara.

Even today, I recall that day I sat listening and learning how to make my lips look properly pouty and my eyes to look sufficiently sultry. I should have been listening about how to report the acts that I was being put through by a trusted adult male each week, or how to feel strong enough to run away, or how to study for the SAT so I could get the education I so desired so I could escape from the life I feared I was being sucked into. But I wasn’t taught these things. And I wasn’t questioning why. I was just worried about my makeup.

I’ve come a long way since junior high. But I still have the scars. And, try though I might, I can never cover them all with makeup.

IMG_3358

Someone Like Me… and You

IMG_3358 “What’s someone like me doing in a life like this?” is playing on my phone as I begin my evening rituals, stripping layer after layer of color and product from face and hair. First the mascara and eyeliner, then the shadow, the face powders, the fixatives holding my hair in place, … Cyndi Lauper’s little known lyrics strike a chord. This song has resonated with me since I moved to Utah more than twenty years ago now. Tonight, though, is one of those nights when thoughts flow more like a waterfall then a gentle stream.

*

“Why are you moving to Utah?” was the question everyone asked when this liberal activist from Portland, Oregon said she was leaving. Bets were placed about how long she’d last in the conservative Wasatch Front. That was 1991.

“What brought you to Utah?” is still a question she struggles to answer.

“How much do you want to know?” She giggles in reply. Sometimes life just needs a reset button. That’s what Utah was, a completely new start.

*

Tea in hand, makeup removed and  hair at ease, I sit to enjoy the quiet time after everyone else has gone to bed. Sipping on the peppermint and breathing deep, I am struck by the fact that my quip shared with multiple do-gooders at tonight’s fundraiser is no longer necessary.

I’ve lived more than 20 years feeling I do not belong and am so different from my peers. When I received my last promotion I actually worried I would not be included in key decisions–wouldn’t be part of some “cool kids” vision I had created of my organizational hierarchy.

“Should I start getting my nails done, maybe get facials? What about my clothes… will they be okay?” My sweet husband just listened and offered “Do what makes you feel good.” Not very helpful advice, or so I thought at the time, but apt nonetheless.

*

“Look, Sarah, I even wore heals tonight!” my boss laughed as we walked into the event.

Wait a minute! Was my gorgeous, experienced, always financially stable supervisor actually self-conscious about her appearance and how she might be perceived by others? I thought about this all night.

It’s true I dress differently than any other in my position. My liberal streak shows in my flowing scarves and sari skirts. My commanding presence is made known with each assertive stride in my funky heals. And my hair is a different set of colors every six weeks.

It’s also true that I was raised and lived, and still live, quite differently than my peers. The abuse and addiction in my home shaped me and sculpted my strong spirit. The broken souls welcomed into my home as a child taught me gratitude–and how to learn from everyone I meet. I was no “cool kid” with my movement from school to school, protected only by the strong characters in my books.

Now look at me. What’s someone like me doing in a life like this? How dare I spend the last several months feeling somehow less-than when I have come so far and found a way to do so much. And, worse, how dare I assume others do not have their own insecurities and, instead, only judge and hold themselves above others. I was the one who was judging.

How can someone like me be so judgmental? How could I just assume this group would not accept me?

*

I always told my students “don’t ever let anyone else be right about who you will become; prove to them that you are only who you choose to be–and surpass all expectations!” I like to think I’ve done this. But sometimes, even someone like me, wallows in her little girl fears and insecurities. Tonight reminded me that maybe we all do this on occasion.

So, what’s someone like me, and someone like you, going to do? How can we remember our own greatness and embrace our own ability to connect and empathize with others?  In a life like this, it would do us all some good to remember that we all have our challenges and our worries, but we’re all in this together.