I had the opportunity last week to meet, for the first time, with a book club of people who’d read my book, “Ten Boxes: A Story of Stuff.” I was nervous the day before, concerned, wondering – in all honesty – what was the cruelest thing someone had ever said to an author at a book club meeting? I had no idea whether these people who’d read the book had all liked it, or if some of them might have some sour words for me. Although I was aware of my anxiety, it was a thrill for me to be invited to speak with them, and I continued to reassure myself that I wouldn’t be struck speechless for the first time in my life, and that I wouldn’t be torn limb from limb by book critics.
What I’d forgotten amidst all my worrying is that what I was about to have was not a performance, and I would not be alone. What I was engaging in with these gentle readers was a conversation, and as with all good conversations, there would exist somewhere within it that open space where thoughts exchanged might reveal new doorways to other ways of being.
Some time into our talking together, one of the women in the book club said, “Your mother was smart.”
I nodded vigorously, agreeing, “Oh, she was so smart. It always frustrated me, too, because she always said she was dumb. Way too often. If there was something she wasn’t grasping or some skill that wasn’t easy for her to acquire, she’d shake her head and shrug, saying ‘I guess I’m just too dumb.’ I always protested. She was smart. So smart. She knew – she knew so much about so many things. . .But she always said she was dumb.”
“Because she’d been told she was,” the reader replied.
I agreed. My book makes that clear. My mother was told she was dumb. By adults. Many of them men who had their own interests in mind. She was told she was dumb by the people who tell us how the world is. Adults. People who, as children, we trust to inform us about what’s what. If you’re a child who’s unfortunate enough to have the wrong adults – your up becomes down and your left is right. If you’re a child fed incorrect facts by your adults, you will learn them as certainties and the world will be askew.
My mother never could accept how smart she was. Ever. I’d known that like my shoe size. But then I found myself talking about that fact with a group of readers. Even though I’ve written about it. Even though I’ve said it dozens of times. And suddenly, I heard what I had never heard myself saying inside of all of this: She could not unlearn her directions. The things they told her, she could not unhear. The ugly truth is that part of me is afraid that none of us can. This is the part of me to which I do not like to talk. I do not like to talk to that part of myself, because I do not like to think that way, so I often ignore that hopeless, frightened voice in favor of hope.
Nonetheless, like my mother, I navigate by a broken compass. There are things about myself which I am so, so grateful for having been told and, therefore, taught. I was taught that I am creative. I was taught that I can always find ways to entertain myself. I was taught that I am smart and easily learn anything that I choose to focus on learning. I was also told, and therefore taught, that I was fat. I was taught that people didn’t like my body. I was taught that I had things to be ashamed about. I was taught to hide myself.
I have an incredibly clear memory from a college movement class. (Movement is a class for actors, about being in and using one’s body.) After one particularly personal assignment, our instructor remarked on how very graceful I was. I was stunned. I could barely understand what she was saying to me. It was as though I suddenly was in need of a translator, because I really could not understand how what she’d said could be true - until it suddenly dawned on me that it had to be true. I’d spend my entire life to that point working very, very hard to be unnoticed, to move silently within crowds, to slink quietly down hallways. Because, I suppose, if I knew I was fat (which I knew, because I was told and therefore taught) I could at least not be a loud, clumsy fat person. I could work at grace and hopefully slide around unnoticed, calling no attention to myself.
I’d gotten really good a this. My friend Mary can attest. I once fell down so silently in the middle of a grocery store that she took several strides before she realized I wasn’t at her side any longer. When she turned, I was not there, but on my knees, several paces behind. “What happened!?” she asked. “I fell,” I said. “Well, yes, clearly! But you didn’t make a sound! How do you fall without making a sound?” I’d managed. If a fat girl can fall down silently, maybe no one will notice and she can be spared the torment. Mary thought it was a marvel. She had no idea how long I’d been practicing becoming invisible.
Almost fifty years old, I’m likely somewhere just past half-way through my life (if I’m lucky and live to a ripe old age.) I’m a lucky first-world child. I’ve had, at various points, the opportunity to examine my broken compass, sort through my piles of historical baggage – and maybe create some more - through therapy, EST, self-talk, metaphysics, education, psychedelics, religion(s!), yoga, friends, and wine. Each time my baggage is emptied all the way down to the bottom, what is it I always find? It’s lined with fabric, into which is stitched the singsong phrase “Fatty-fatty two-by-four.” Each time I find this lining, I slam the ugliness closed, only to find my suitcase’s exterior plastered with stickers, as though from travels afar, every single sticker bears one single word. Instead of destinations like MUNICH and PARIS – every single word on my baggage is a word like FAT and OBESE – each word a synonym for body shame.
It’s okay with me to know this is my suitcase, whether I like it or not. I can recognize it in any airport. I’ve tried a bunch to peel off the stickers, but I still can’t seem to. Every now and then I work the corner of one loose and feel hopeful, until a well-meaning size zero family member whispers into my ear at a party “How’s Weight Watchers?” and slaps another sticker on my bag, pasting back down the corner of that one where I’d just worked loose. It doesn’t matter whether I’m a size 12 or a size 20 on any given day, the words create the same ripple effect, the same shame. What I hear, regardless of the intent is “How’s your fat this month?”
Stephen Sondheim, my favorite lyricist and composer, wrote “Careful of what you say, children will listen. Careful of what you do, children will see – and learn.” My brilliant mother learned she was stupid. My wee-child self learned I was fat. Long before puberty. Long before anything about my adult body was decided. Until they decided for me, by teaching me, telling me, just how deserving of ridicule I was.
My husband knows this. Some days he puts down his own baggage and asks me whether I might sit mine down as well, if only for a while. He invites me to a warm tropical place in my mind where there are wide stretches of quiet sand and clear water. The only gift shop sells just three things – water, and two stickers: One reads LOVED and the other, ENOUGH. We spend our whole selves for a new compass to get there. On days when we fall asleep in that place, I listen to our breaths crashing together like waves, trying to remember to send postcards home.
If you're like me and suffer from broken compass syndrome, I hope that this week you have a friend to help point the way, if only for a moment, to the place you've been seeking. I understand it's beautiful there.