Updated: Nov 15, 2020
I came across this photo a few months ago while sorting memories on my computer. I hadn’t seen it in years, maybe a decade. This time, for a few fleeting seconds, I forgot that you were me. Like looking into a flare of the sun, the details of you were softened and milky and it allowed my eyes to see you clearly, as if for the first time.
You took my breath away. Not because you show fewer years around your eyes, or because your body has a firmness now rapidly fleeting, but because of what I forgot to notice. The things I always notice - your nose, too big. Your hair, too thin and frizzy. That faint line of cellulite along your ribs, a failure.
The photographer had asked you to place your arm across your breasts and you struggled to make them look symmetrical and just right. They were always too large and unwieldy, never cooperating, so you did instead what you always had done, and tried to make them disappear.
But this time, for a fleeting exhale, I allowed myself to look past all of that and see you in a way that normally doesn’t have a chance. I didn’t use my critical eye to throw buckets of black paint across the canvas. I just took you in, unafraid to really look at you.
You were thirty-two in this photo, and planning your own wedding. You were coming through an epic five years: two years on the road backpacking alone through South America; one year trying to piece together a relationship that had been broken from the beginning, followed by two years of really falling in love, fast and hard, and getting engaged maybe even before you knew if you were ready.
Those five years had been an exercise in expansion and contraction. In South America there was deep expansion - a fearless and risky unrolling that was messy and terrifying and exhilarating. Then you came home. There were wounds to lick. There were experiences that had yet to be named and understood. There was an American lover who soothed the months of lonliness from solo travel, but in exchange, required you to fold in your edges and tuck away the places in you that made him uncomfortable.
And you did. In exchange for his familiarity and companionship, you found a familiar small box and spent your precious love folding yourself inside so that you didn’t risk making anyone uncomfortable, even at the cost of your own suffering.
Then you exchanged that for a new love. Real and true. Beautiful and sweet. Come out, he said. I like you, he said. You two scared each other in all of the right ways. He was complex. His waters ran deep. You shared similar wounds and found hope in each other that those could be healed.
But still, even still, that little box called to you from the corner. You had ditched it so many times, but it kept showing up, along with the temptation to get small, and go invisible. There were times you made even your new love feel uncomfortable. And his questions became questions for both of you. Would this be enough? Would the road be a stronger siren song than your love? Did you long for that more than you longed for this?
You didn’t know, but what you felt was something truer than anything you had ever known. So you closed your eyes and doubled down on a different kind of adventure. You also went ahead and got back in that box, for good measure, conflating commitment with smallness and safety.
How confusing for both of you. To be such a force of risk and expansion, and then suddenly collapse under the weight of what you thought was required to be faithful to a love.
You let go of independence, but in the process forgot that you had also chosen a man that didn’t ask you to lose your identity. That decision was all your own - lose your identity to be fully loved. That lie was imprinted on you at such a young age, you didn’t even know you owned it. You certainly didn’t ask for it. You certainly wouldn’t have chosen it, but it was yours to unravel, nonetheless
My god woman, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that the keepers of your young heart - teachers, church leaders, family and friends - witnessed your spirit, intuition, wisdom and it reminded them that those things had been unnamed in them and so they insisted that they remain unnamed in you. Speak only this, they said. Feel only this. Believe only this. Your truth was not their truth, so it was not allowed to be your truth either.
And when you were called special it was a burden placed on you. At once a liability and a point of pride. Your gifts were something to be held at arm’s length - admired and loathed and feared. You weren’t meant to touch them nor were you allowed to send them away. They were yours to hold like an Atlas-burden that could not be set down or shared.
Specialness is a lonely place. If you push into it and let those colors ooze out of the seams, then there is too much mess anymore to make it easy to be around you. You were surrounded by a tribe that needed things to be neat and tidy, with edges clearly labeled and defined. So you busied yourself reinforcing the seams over and over, sucking back the colors, holding your breath until you were safely hidden - lonely and disjointed.
I’m so sorry.
But when I look at you in this photo, it’s not pity I feel. It’s heartbreak. Heartbreak that your young and tender soul was laid bare to be picked at and falsely owned and thoughtlessly abused so many times. I’m sorry that the clearest voices in your young life were muddled by their own pains and fears, and so pain and fear is what they gave you.
I’m sorry, that as a girl, older boys and full-grown men thought that your body was composed of pieces that could be taken without notice. That the violations they committed were done so boldly that you were left wondering if you had somehow, unknowingly, invited them.
Permission was not a word in your vocabulary. Choice was not a tool in your belt. Control was something that started and stopped with the tiny box you constructed to help keep your edges tucked in.
No wonder you came to secretly hate yourself. No wonder you tried to starve away the curves, and tuck in your rounded parts. No wonder you never felt comfortable in your own skin. Your skin ached because it was trying to contain your breaking heart.
And now, instead of 32, you count 49. Not enough to be old, too many to be called young. But, apparently, just enough to start looking up and looking around again. Just enough to feel like you might not need so much fortifying anymore.
If you listen now, you’ll hear that what’s left of the offenders are just bits of voices and memories floating around you like disembodied ghosts. You don’t have to keep them alive. You’ve done so much work to build a new tribe and a thicker, more resilient skin. Your gifts and dreams are no longer the ones you keep at a distance.
Do you see that more clearly now?
Maybe, yes. Because I can feel you coming up and out. I can feel you ripping at the seams.
Yes, come out. You are big and full and real. I like you. You know better now. You’ll do better now. Feel the ache release. Feel the pain evaporate. Come out, Dear One. It’s safe. I trust you. I love you.