A friend and beloved of mine from grad school wrote me an email a few weeks ago. She had seen me on the teevee, and she said–we’ve come such a long way from being in class. She meant of course that we are really old and about to crumble into gravedust, but she was also talking very specifically about how afraid we used to feel, and timid.
And god, I remember that. The smallest grad school classes–I refused to volunteer information. Which was less than ideal vis a vis a discussion class. And when I was called on–the painful burning at the tips of my ears, the tops of my cheeks, down my neck and into my decolletage because suddenly I was being looked at. The horrible, tears-welling-up stammer and the Long Stare of Terror. The blank head and the slightly open mouth and the fight-or-flight response that kicked my nerves into highest gear. The dwindling off into silence while everyone kind of looked at their hands and felt sorry for me and wondered what the hell I was doing in grad school. Wasn’t I supposed to be an adult?
I was supposed to be an adult, but I had never figured out how to be a good one–I mean, no one ever does, right? Or ever thinks that they manage it. But I was the cliche of the fat kid who grew up cripplingly shy and afraid of being looked at and afraid of being thought about and afraid about putting even more of herself into the world–wasn’t this body an overgenerous amount to already offer? Seriously, go look at a scenic vista or something and pretend I’m not here, okay? We’ll pretend this never happened. I’ll go back to pretending I never happened, because it’s just easier that way, ghosting your way through the world.
Years of that! Way too many years, you guys. No one should slouch around feeling like that. No one should ever think that way. Especially so far beyond the teenage years when you could maybe expect to feel mopey and tragic and blame it on your hormones. Far beyond any reasonable statute of limitations. Even past the point where I developed a sense of self-awareness and a sense of style and a sense of self–there was a core of that terror that never quite dwindled. Like a hunk of schwarma meat on a metal spike, spinning greasily inside me.
And while I managed to basically muddle my way through life without actually tipping my hand as to the actual content of my innermost innards, public speaking never got easier. Talking to strangers? Oh, you are going to die, the insides of my brains jangled at me, and then it was all downhill from there. Parties were painful and interviews were more like interrogations and I avoided the whole talking thing as much as possible.
You can’t do that in grad school. So there was the meaty fear inside me, and here was me feeling, two nights a week, like an awkward fool who would never get over awkwarding around all awkwardly.
One of the things weight loss surgery was supposed to fix was this fear. They were supposed to scoop it on out, while they were inside me, and discard it in a medical waste pile somewhere. When I wasn’t fat, my reasoning went, I wouldn’t be so afraid of being looked at.
Of course when I wasn’t fat by empirical standards, I was still afraid of being looked at because I was sure I still didn’t look right. At every size, for the love of god.
As I got older–grew up for real–as I felt more confident in myself and started figuring my bullshit out, as I lost some weight and gained some weight and realized that I was still the same me whatever number of digits my pants size had, dorky and awkward. And I got better at being that me. I got better at trusting myself, my general appeal, my worth to the world despite-maybe-because-of. There were hangovers–I am still knee-jerk self-deprecating at the drop of a hat. Get to my flaws first before you can make me feel bad about them, you see. It’s something I’ve never been able to root out of me.
I was feeling pretty good about myself in general (if frequently awkward), through my early thirties, though I’d still sure as fuck never volunteer to lead a group prayer or something. Well, I mean, I wouldn’t in general, but you understand the basic gist of the scene I am trying to paint for you here.
Then I wrote a book and found out that once you’ve written the book, you have to talk about it. To people. To people everywhere. To people in the street and people behind a microphone and to people on camera and to the world. You have to look up from your laptop and string sentences together with your mouth instead of your fingers. And no one gives a shit if you’re afraid or if you feel too awkward and clumsy and you’re going to fuck up. Too bad. Get out there, you’re on.
It’s been trial by fire. It’s been a trial, and I feel like the top of my head is on fire. But I’ve been getting better at it. More comfortable, every so slightly more relaxed, more sure that what I’m talking about is what people want to hear, even if it’s my face it’s coming from (author’s note: self deprecation).
What it’s come down to is that I’ve finally embraced the fact that I am awkward. That I’m kind of goofy. I say a lot of dumb things-I mean, like, a lot. I am never sure when to shut my mouth, now. I always go that little step beyond. I’m a little bit of a mess but that’s okay because when you embrace it, when you become aware of it and have a sense of humor about it, it can be sort of charming? At the very least it can be you, the real you, instead of something about you that’s embarrassing.
Twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or five years ago I would have died if someone tried to put me on Good Morning America. A couple of months ago I almost died being on a local Sunday television show. This week I’m doing radio interviews and I even like the things I’m saying. I feel good about the conversations I’m having. I feel hopeful that I am saying the things I need to say and want to say and have to say. I am still awkward, but I’m sincere about it. I’ll always be awkward, and I’m okay with that. Or I better get okay right quick because I have run out of operations to try.