on being weird
Watching my niece last week made me wonder how my parents watched me play, what they thought of as they saw how I made sense of the world. My niece is wildly curious, wants to know how things work. She is stubborn, doesn't want your help, and gets frustrated when you offer too much assistance. She is also funny and clever, and goes 1000 miles an hour. She changes people when she is around them; she lights us up. She seems fearless to me and it's amazing to be part of her growing up.
I marvel at my niece, at the way she considers and figures out things. She reminds me of my brother, wanting to know how it all fits together. But she isn't just him, of course. She is joy and creativity and laughter, like I imagine her mother was at her age. She is herself, all fire and contradictions, a girl wearing a tutu and playing with sticks, these pieces of a being melding together into something different from all of us.
I was not an easy girl to raise. Like my niece, I wanted things on my own time, my approach, my ideas. I pushed back at school, at home, with authority figures of all kinds. The only time I listened was when stories were being told, or when my full name was used. My mother jokes that I was born a rebel, on a cold January afternoon, later than expected and terribly inconvenient to the doctor who had to leave a college basketball game to deliver me. In the stories she tells of my childhood, she talks about my independence, my strong will, my refusal to take on anyone else's opinion or help. I blazed my own trail, did not mind playing alone, and in a world of my own making. I was her first child and we navigated the space of belonging to one another the best we could. (In some ways, I think we are still figuring it out, how we evolve as family. Who takes care of whom?)
In 2nd grade a girl in my class told me I was not normal and my response was, "Thanks."
I don't know what it was that made her express that to me, but I knew that I was not like everyone else. I did not want to be like anyone else. I wore my weirdness with pride, revelled in people looking at me with questions in their eyes. And while I was called weird more than once, I always had friends, someone to kick the ball around with, or create adventures alongside, like the time my friend, Annie, and I decided to paint a room in an abandoned house on her property because we were convinced that we could turn it into a kind of playhouse. We also thought it was haunted, but we thought everywhere was haunted when we were 10. While my imagination might have exasperated my parents, at times, they also encouraged my love of reading, and pushed me to speak my mind, stand up for myself and for others who were being treated unfairly. I listened to my father preach about compassion and love and justice. I heard him tell stories at the dinner table about the people who sought his help. More than once, I saw him console grieving families, and offer comfort to the dying.
When I was in middle school, we were assigned a project to collect poems on any subject and make a book. My subject, was of course, Death. I remember cutting out construction paper tombstones, trees, gardens, the sun. My classmates' books were on Spring, nature, or based around a form of poetry. Mine was about Death, and the way we personify, process and come to terms with it.
Told ya, I was weird.
Years later, in a dark bar after one too many shots of vodka, I would laugh when someone I was sort of dating called me too intense and broke things off. I laughed because it hurt, because it was probably true and because sometimes it scared me, how serious I was, how acutely I felt things, how badly I wanted to escape myself, which meant I only ended up being the rebellious, intense, damaged girl I did not want to be.
I've thought a lot about identity and expectations lately, how we challenge, go beyond and resist expectations. Once expectations are set, it's difficult to change someone's mind about you. We are all cast in roles by others; some we play more easily.
For some people in my life, I will always be a rebel, an outsider, a bit of a weirdo. I will be seen as reckless and wild, someone who sleeps past noon, who reads strange books and listens to odd music, who explores spirituality through meditation, and zen practices and for whom religion in its structured and organized forms is not the immediate answer. And that's okay, because I am those things. But I'm also more than one person's expectations or role. We often move quickly between roles and identities: employee, colleague, friend, family member, lover, wife, writer, teacher, cook, consumer, and on and on. There is overlap in who we are and the way we exist in the roles we accept or resist, but we are rarely simple. So yeah, maybe I am a weirdo. We're all weirdos in our own way.
These lines from Rilke echo through me:
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
It is impossible (for me) to understand all the things that make us, how we process and make meaning in the world. But this much I know: in all of my weirdness, I am never bored. I have been able to do things I never thought possible. I would not trade those parts of me for anything.
I can already tell that my niece with her dimples and pigtails and her adventurous spirit is going to be a little weird. With her last name and our family traditions, she really has no hope of normalcy.
Welcome to the weirdness, Grace. You're in good company.