The Outsider

I have always been different, quirky.  I cannot remember a time when I didn’t feel like I was an outsider looking in, trying to figure other people out, like a nerdy scientist in a very long social experiment. That is probably why I studied psychology, naively thinking that all the mysteries of humanity would perhaps reveal themselves to me through copious amounts of education.  Yeah, right.  It didn’t happen, and people still puzzle me as much as ever.

I was a sensitive child, in every sense of the word. I was so sensitive to textures that I could feel every seam in my nightgown touching me and the sheer torture of it all could keep me awake at night.  My father teasingly called me “The Princess and the Pea“.

But it wasn’t just clothing and textures that I was sensitive to as a child.  I felt everything, and felt it deeply.  The arrowheads I found on my long solitary daily walks in the country fields of my childhood home bothered me immensely. I worried about the animals who had suffered and died from their sharp points, and I worried about what had happened to the brave warriors who had once hunted on the land.  (I was rather a serious little thing, as you can see by my picture, below).

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I loved animals with an overwhelming intensity, and soon, people learned that if they put an unwanted dog out on the road in front of my house, it would be guaranteed a home. Soon, I was the proud mama of multiple canines of all sizes, colors and ages; a motley, protective crew who followed me everywhere.

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Skeeter, my aunt’s chihuahua: I loved him so much I just wanted to squeeeeeeeze him!

Upon my (much-dreaded) first day of kindergarten, I was stunned into silence by the activity, noise, and unbridled silliness of my classmates.  I much preferred my beloved books, neatly stacked beside my bed, to the brouhaha of humanity. To say I was different than my classmates would be a colossal understatement. They were seemingly carefree, laughing, running, giggling, teasing, rolling, wrestling, playing. I was quiet, reserved, standoffish. I did not understand this whole thing called “play”.  I soon also discovered that none of my classmates could read yet (much to my dismay, since talking about books was the only conversational gambit I had).

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First day of first grade; and still not having fun.

My mother had shamed me into learning to tie my shoes, telling me that if I could not absolutely master it before my first day of kindergarten, I would be the only one who was so far behind that the other kids would laugh at me.  So, as if I weren’t already stressed out enough about having to uproot my routines and go to this unknown Hell called “school”, I laboriously learned to tie my shoes into perfect little bows.  It was difficult for me, because fine motor skills are not my strong suit, but I did it.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived the first day and found that none (that is right, count them…NONE!) of my kindergarten cohorts could tie their shoes. (It was not the first time my mother had lied to me, and it wouldn’t be the last).  Suddenly, I was deemed to be an expert shoe-tier.  I somewhat reluctantly became everyone’s helper, and I tied more shoes that year than I have tied in all the years since. It became my way of socializing with peers.

My young self suddenly realized that I might not understand other people, and they might not understand me, but that day I had inadvertently discovered that, by-golly, I could certainly make myself useful.

And that sums up approximately the next 40 years of my life.  I made myself useful, even indispensable.  I made myself into the “perfect” model of a variety of roles: student, employee, psychologist, friend, citizen, volunteer, partner, runner, baker, upcycler, hostess. It was a way to relate to other people; it was a way to be needed; it was a way to gain approval; it was a way to avoid the inner loneliness and unidentifiable wistfulness I felt every time I slowed down long enough to hear myself think.  I put more faith into what I could do than in who I actually was.  I listened to all the voices telling me to “be normal“, to “be nice“, to “fit in”.

What’s funny, though, is that I always knew that I could never truly fit in with mainstream society anyway; as a femme lesbian in a heterosexual world, I was always on the outside, always different, never fully understood or accepted; so it was always a fool’s errand to even try to assimilate.

Nonetheless, I did manage to obtain all the trappings of a so-called normal life (basically, a lesbian version of the Great American Dream).

Then a health scare (in addition to the increasing boldness that often accompanies simply getting to a certain age) precipitated a spiraling series of changes.

Mainly, I stopped being a people-pleaser. I didn’t taper off and gradually acclimate those around me, like I know you are supposed to do with big life changes…oh, no.  Nope. Not me.

Once I recovered my voice after thyroid surgery, I just went cold turkey on all the people-pleasing.  If I didn’t want to go to that Mint Julep party where you were supposed to wear all-white, or to the Carolina Cup, or to my friend’s cousin’s nephew’s wedding shower where the cheapest thing on their registry was $189.99 plus tax, I simply didn’t go.  I didn’t even attempt to think of elaborate excuses.  “No, so sorry, I can’t do it” became my mantra.

And what I learned was sometimes you have to lose everything you have, in order to gain who you really are.  Since then, nearly everything in my outer life has changed.  Gone are the (so-called) friends who dumped me as soon as I quit doing everything they wanted.  Gone are the people who just wanted to be heard and to not hear me; those who wanted me to be their idea of a “perfect” (polite) complement to the backdrop of their own lives. Gone were the friends who were dependent upon me to listen to their troubles ad-nauseam without ever intending to actually change anything, thereby wasting both my time and theirs.

I gradually started hearing something I had not heard in a very long time.  My own (quirky, different, not-always-socially-appropriate) voice; as Mary Oliver said much more eloquently in “The Journey”.  I started to embrace the “odd” little girl I once was and still am ~ the girl who makes impractical wishes on shooting stars and four-leaf clovers and who is more interested in reading a good book than in socializing with peers. The girl who speaks the truth even when others don’t want to hear it; the girl who feels things more deeply than could ever be expressed in words.

I learned to listen to that voice inside that tells me when things aren’t right…and when they are. I have since found the love of my life, someone who loves and supports me, not in spite of my quirkiness, but because of it.  Someone who doesn’t try to shush me nor plead with me to fit in with the crowd, but rather, someone who encourages me to be whatever I want, and to say whatever I want. Someone who loves me unconditionally. And the feeling is mutual.

My point is that it isn’t always easy to find our true way with all the pressures and “shoulds” of the world ~ actually, it is usually downright difficult. But the alternative of remaining the person who pleases everyone else is like being sucked into the black hole of others’ expectations. And that is not a good place to be. Much better to embrace uniqueness and let the chips fall where they may.  For better or for worse, at least they are my chips.

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