When I was 10, my legs grew too long too fast and I was so bony that it hurt me to lie down on the mats in gym class. My mom told me that growing happens only when you’re asleep, so for weeks I tried to stay up and watch over my legs, hoping to stop them from growing, and for a while, I thought it was working. “I’m not growing anymore,” I said to my mom. “Bullshit,” she said in Chinese. “You’re 10 years old, you can’t stay this size forever.” And I didn’t; the growing happened despite my efforts.
The jabs and the jokes about my knobby knees and my next-to-nothing chest that were so much a part of the early years of my teenage life, that I thought I would carry in my heart forever like a wound that does not heal, disappeared one day. It took me some time to catch up with these changes, to switch my idea of myself as this awkward, gawky, hideously unwanted creature to someone who didn’t need to move through the world so wounded all the freaking time. And no matter how much I tried to track these physical changes—to the point where I would sometimes spend entire afternoons sitting in front of a mirror, waiting to see something happen—it always came as a surprise. Like the time I walked past my university’s post office and saw my reflection in the glass door and I felt so beautiful and happy that I wanted to cry, because the day had finally come when I had realized that I was no longer the person I was when I thought the pain I felt would be the pain I would always feel.
But how do you do it? How do you even get started? That was my question when I was 13 and picking Styrofoam out of my hair. “How do you build a house from scratch?” I asked my father, who told me, “You just do. You pick up a brick and you just start.”
“And how do traffic jams happen?” I asked him. “How does an entire highway get backed up for miles?”
“It just does,” he said. “And it always starts with someone.”
“But how does one person start a jam that affects like 10 thousand other people in their cars?”
“You just do it,” my father told me, as if it were just that simple. As if all you had to do was just start doing anything at all, and eventually your little actions would become huge.
Once my father and I were driving on Grand Central Parkway, where oversize trucks aren’t allowed because the overpasses are too low, and we saw this huge truck enter the highway. My father said to me, “He’s going to get stuck,” and sure enough, after a few minutes, the truck had gotten stuck underneath an underpass. We were right behind the truck, so we were the first car to slow down to a halt. “Look behind us, Jenny,” my father said. I looked behind us and saw all the cars that had slowed down and stopped. “We just started a traffic jam.”
At some point, I just started. I read all the time and I wrote all the time and I listened to music I loved and I sought out people who I thought might know about music and books that I would love too. I rigorously researched colleges and universities to find ones that had strong creative-writing programs. I got into Stanford after spending months on my college applications, spilling my guts out into my personal essays; and at Stanford, I took every poetry and fiction class I could, joined every club that seemed even a little bit interesting, went to every reading I heard about or had time for in my schedule, met people who made art and played music, and started a writing group with my friends that still exists today only now we are all published authors and journalists and novelists and poets. I applied for grants that allowed me to travel to Paris two summers in a row and spent six weeks obsessively researching the literary and artistic community in Paris, and when I got there I immediately went to Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore that Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Anaïs Nin once frequented, the bookstore that famously offered beds in exchange for poems, where I was determined to sleep amongst the books I had spent my whole life reading, and it turned out, all I had to do was show up with my big dreams balled up in my sweaty fists, and ask if I could spend the night. The answer was yes.
I spent my first summer in Paris tirelessly and relentlessly seeking out miscreants and weirdos, and came back the next summer to continue where I’d left off, hanging out with the crust punks from Germany, falling in love with a Swedish boy who had walked on a bed of hot coals, writing poetry on Pont des Arts, and flirting outrageously with boys and girls who found my social awkwardness lovable instead of execrable.
I’m 28 now, old enough to know better—old enough to shed my old attachments to this idea of being the ultimate loser, the unknowable weirdo—but I’m still clinging. I can’t let go of the scared, angry, alienated 17-year-old I was when I went off to college in California, where everyone was always “SO AWESOME” and so happy and so cheerful and so upbeat and I was always so “mysterious” (EW) and “artsy” (EW) and “quirky” (EW EW). I can’t let go of that girl, even though at some point, I was so proud to be myself and so alienated by everyone else that I started to work really hard to find people who would never the use the word artsy; and then I found them, and I started to date boys who didn’t think I was “quirky,” but just got who I was; and slowly, painfully, and ignorantly, I began to accept that things were changing. Maybe I wasn’t changing, but my idea of who I was needed to change. I couldn’t cling to my old safety net of “everyone is against me!” because the happy, creative bubble I wanted for myself was happening, and in order to love it, in order to experience it, I had to acknowledge it.
So here I am, acknowledging it. Acknowledging that a few weeks ago, I went on a poetry-and-puppets tour with the poet Zach Schomburg and the multimedia puppet troupe Manual Cinema. We spent a week driving down the East Coast in a Ford Econoline, listening to the songs I listened to when I thought I would always live on the edges of everyone else’s world, except I wasn’t on the edge anymore, I was right there in the center. I was still the cheerful, moody, puerile, poop-and-farts-obsessed wannabe poet I had always been, except I was in a van with other poets and musicians and actors and trapeze artists and puppeteers—the very people I had hoped to meet standing on the corner of St. Marks and Third Avenue—and every day we drove to a new city where we shared the things we made with people who had come to hear poetry, and there were nights when I stood there, trembling, with poems in my hand, wondering, How did I get here?
I got here because I had to get here. As soon as I stopped standing on corners, I began to find other misfits and explorers. So here I am, in it. Acknowledging it. Loving it. Wanting you to know that as much as it might look like nothing is happening right now, as much as you might think that it’s possible for a person to be this lonely forever, in fact, slowly, bit by bit, the dust that has been gathering in your corner will clear, and one day, when you are returning to your lonely place for the hundredth or thousandth time, you will be surprised to find that the dust is gone and there in your corner of the world will be people like you who have been waiting for you this whole time as much as you have been waiting for them. ♦