III. “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” —Audre Lorde
I came to the conclusion that I would always be myself a few Julys ago, at 19 or 20, in a way that felt airtight—or permeable only by scent.This happened on one of those rainy afternoons that feel like a drawn-out, contiguous morning: slightly cold; slightly dark; slightly unlike July. This is my favorite weather, and my room was filled with the accordant smell, which is one of my favorites, and is furthermore behind one of my favorite words: petrichor, meaning the shadowy odor that rises up from the ground when it rains. From the Greek: “petri” = stone and “chor” = the fluid in the veins of the gods. (Regular human hemogravy: BASIC SLUDGE, as far as the gods were concerned; this was their version of our all too facile circulatory system.)
So I was posted up lying on my stomach on my bed, huffing the blood of the rock and ignoring my phone. I was wearing one of my most prized possessions, a men’s XL Elton John tour T-shirt I got for my seventh birthday, and rereading another, a first edition of In Cold Blood that I had nicked out of the dumpster of the library where I worked at 15 (Capote’s giant portrait presides over the rest of the permanent collection at you-know-where). Enveloped in the book, in the rain, in Sir Elton’s punchy, orange-suited visage, I caught myself nearly bordering on self-parody: I am always going to be this person that I’ve always been. Surrounded by treasure as I was, that idea, for once, did not feel like a sentencing. It was a weirdo benediction: You might as well try to like the things you love, including the you-museum that houses them so appreciatively.
Another quote, this time from my friend and colleague Jamia, who said something once about making your convictions into a second skeleton that has stayed with me for a very long time: “When I’m feeling like I’m fronting or losing myself or martyring myself I imagine my five-year-old self with ashy knees and a big snaggle tooth smiling at me and reminding me who I am—and I just can’t lie to her.” By this, Jamia obviously doesn’t mean that we’re identical to our five-year-old selves in terms of our preferences—like, Spaghettios aren’t my favorite food anymore, or at least not my ONLY favorite—but do you ever hear your parents or whomever else has loved you longest recount anecdotes about what an oddity of a baby you were and think, Holy cow, I am still very much that person? I’m not about telling one’s own toddler stories—that always ends in someone explaining the intricacies of how precocious!!! they were, over at least one decade later—but when my mom offhandedly tells a story about how spacey, or sensitive, or pedantically bookish I was, I can very much see an evolution-style chart of that girl elongating in stages to the one deifying rain-smell and “Crocodile Rock” on her bed. I wonder what she’ll look like next, but know it won’t be too terribly unfamiliar, and that her environment will be just as lovely as the grayest July day, because it’s the one she has picked for herself to hang out in. That feels more like a comfort than it ever has before.
You know what you believe and who you are and what you like (to an extent—this is, of course, mutable, cf. Spaghettios). Once I stopped worrying about if other people would be made, in the slightest, uncomfortable by me and just began ACTING, GOING, DOING WHAT I WANTED, MAKING A JOKE ONLY I THOUGHT I’D FIND FUNNY, NOT SUFFERING FOOLS, I found myself in different company, and doing different work—both of which were the kind I always wanted. When I was part of an institution that overlooked the rampant and longstanding sexual harassment by one of the organization’s higher-ups, I agitated against and was voluble about the party in question, as well as those with whom he was closely aligned that had been permissive of his abuse of his authority. Many people with far more prestigious and powerful pedigrees warned me that I was going to make some of the pragmatic, essential parts of my life then very difficult by doing this. My career was threatened, repeatedly—I was, I think, 20. I smiled politely and hammered harder. I am now totally fine—the kind of professional trouble I was warned about came down on him in the end, so I know I was right to be blisteringly angry—and take action—about a system I didn’t want to be a part of if it meant letting that toad fuck with my friends and me on a bodily level.
When, at my first real-person writing job straight out of college, I was disallowed from chasing down the kinds of stories I wanted to report because “no one wants to read that,” I stopped pitching them, arranged for interviews and other research trips independently, and wrote them anyway, because I was so convinced their subjects were interesting and good and worthy that the attendant features would be, too. (I do not care what people “want to read,” because they can find that basically anywhere else. I care about what I can give them that’s new.) Though the publication was annoyed when I’d present them with fully fleshed-out stories they’d turned down, they usually ran that work after all, and it’s still some of my best. Was I going about getting the pieces I thought were worthwhile into the world in an unsanctioned way? Yep! Was I hurting anyone? Nope—the only harm I could potentially have incited against anyone would probably have been irritating them into firing me, but since I wasn’t actually disrespecting anyone by saying, “Could you look at this and see if you want it?” that didn’t happen.
IV. “We are what we pretend to be.” —Kurt Vonnegut
Sometimes it can feel dangerous to be yourself. I guess the main thing that I left out of this essay is how terrified I was of saying how I felt, ever, as a kid sometimes. While I elided that part because I don’t like to talk about it and sometimes feel that even mentioning it is too much exposure to bear (although imagine if I was like, “Talking about HomeLife is my FAVORITE thing!! Better than rock-god blood, even!” and expected you to stay full 100 with me), it would be really disingenuous to pretend that doesn’t carry mad heft re: Why I Was This Way. It doesn’t have to for you, but maybe it does, and maybe it is. Either way: After I read East of Eden for the first time, I’ve scarfed it down annually. This tradition began my freshman year of high school, when it was most imperative to me to learn the book’s central credo: Timshel, which is Hebrew for thou mayest. Go right the fuck on—you can muster the ability to hang YOUR WAY, the book and word told me. You are not the sum of your parent’s parts, and more than that, you are your own.
How do you come to know that, though, besides through evidence that idosyncracies are actually ACES? Real proof, like a book or a true-crime nonfiction author or the singer behind “Tiny Dancer”? You have to prove it to yourself and keep trying to timshel it as best you can, because—Vonnegut—“we are what we pretend to be,” and if you pretend to run with the wolves and know what you’re saying—and how to say it while accepting that you’re not ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ALWAYS RIGHT and that you need to hear other people, too—you might find yourself leading the pack. This cannot be your intention, setting out, though. I don’t think I’m some V. POPULAR BASTION OF HOW THE FUCK TO BE now that I feel a little better about myself. I spend most of my time alone, if you couldn’t tell by my great enthusiasm for DESCRIBING WORDS AND SMELLS, which is…very deeply “party” and “intellect” behavior; I’m basically wearing a lampshade at a MENSA party and lookin’ great doing it. But I do know that I would not be as happy or productive or as close to my friends and family and boyfriend if I were still constantly apologizing for my own crass ontology instead of just accepting that I fuck up, a lot, and trying my best to do better—wait, not do better, but be kinder and more considerate in my thinking from then on out. The other way, the perfection-demand, is prohibitively time-consuming and kind of narcissistic. The baseline is: I was not able to shove anything “good” (read: mindful of others) into the world until I begrudgingly at least POSTURED that I had stopped seething with mournful misery that I had to be this particular girl—so unfair. Once I got used to that mimicry via wearing clothes I actually liked, going alone to events I was intrigued by, and forcing myself to talk about squid, I began to stop thinking about it and just relax inside and into myself.
Conversely: If you pretend that you are the kind of “girl who can hang” by tamping down the urge to respectfully offer contrapuntal opinions to people if their actions and/or conversation are dismissive or condescending or bigoted…well, congratulations? You win the prize of the esteem of people who make you and others feel small. You deserve SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT, you lupine gold mine. There are New Jersey goddesses of war out there to squad up with!!! Or whatever your version of a good friend is? And the slime-hacks of this world need to know that there are other ways of being happy and successful, and you can show them that by JUST LIVING IT—you don’t even have to make some grandiose argument or point. Presented with your pretty rad version of events re: living life, maybe they’ll reconsider their campaigns of grossness. And maybe not! At least you’re vividly you. Your happiness is not up to them. Not everyone is going to get it, and that’s rad. It supports the theory that life is a sprawling ecosystem of all kinds of surprising new species of heart and brain matter. That’s the way it should be! Homogeny is death.
V. “I’m not so weird to me.” —Haruki Murakami
Who’s the friend you’ve had the longest? Nah, you’re wrong—it’s not Sarah from next door, nor your “cousin” Ang to whom you’re not actually related (your moms, having met at aerobics over two decades ago, are just that close), nor Josh from pre-K whom you met after both bringing costume jewelry to show and tell. OH, DIP, then who could it BE?? CAN YOU GUESS WHO THE CULPRIT IS, GIVEN THIS CORNADOCIOUS LITTLE BUILD-UP? The suspense is just throttling you, right? Since this gambit is just about as obvious as Guess Who?, the board game (gender? glasses? facial hair? HANDLED—IT’S ROBERT), you know what I’m about to say: It’s yourself, dude. You have to be loving or at least decent to her, because she’s with you forever. Part of making this long-term relationship work is taking yourself seriously. You have to resolutely trust and like her enough to share her with the world outside your brain. You wouldn’t tell your best friend not to talk to you anywhere other people could see, right? (If yes: Dude, stop reading this web’s site and instead please look up the word “friend” real quick, and then compose a four-page apologia.)
If showing yourself patience, affection, and permissiveness is hard (hee, “if”): Dissociating a little is helpful. When I flat-out cannot stand another minute of hacking on my own acrid thoughts, I try to come to myself with the tenderness I would if one of my very best friends was hurting. If Ang was calling herself fat, or Sarah was wondering if this is the week she finally kills herself, or Josh was shamefacedly reconsidering his own perfectly fine and actually quite stylish rhinestone cuff bracelets, saying, “What was I thinking? I could never pull these off. I’m such a weirdo,” what would you do? You’d spring into action on some insistent reassurance tip, telling A. that all bodies are A+, including hers, regardless of her weight, and you’d smother S. in love and support, and listen to her and take her seriously, and be dogged in your pursuit of pragmatic resources for her, and to J., you’d say, *McConaughey voice* “Brah, what are you talking about? You know they’re wicked—that’s why you picked them! And they’re especially groovy as modeled by you.” (I kind of lost the way re: that impression due to rampant sincerity, perhaps the least funny thing in the known universe?)
You are more than capable of zealous kindness, as you know. Point the heart you’d tractor-beam outward to someone who was upset and unsure inward when you are yourself those things, and set the phasers of your super-love on “stun.” It’s the only way to skid through this life effectively—and to ensure you can be there for others, when they do need you. Instead of dump-trucking hollow advice like “be yourself” when someone tells you they’re feeling bad, listen to them and lift them up in specific ways, but you can radiate the first thing far more effectively than the platitudes flung your way by well-meaning adults simply by leading by your own loving example: Be exactly what you’re like. ♦