“You’re my sister’s friend, right?” said the sales clerk at the mall. We’d met before. But as usual he didn’t recall, so he introduced himself again (introduction number: three). He wasn’t exactly the brightest cellphone screen at the Verizon store, and he probably would’ve made a great Now Kids, This is Why You Shouldn’t Do Drugs example for DARE. He reminded me of a shaggy 20-something puppy, lovable and pitiful all rolled into one.
“You know my sister from … church?” he asked. I was attending a Presbyterian church at the time — PC (USA), for those of you who know or care. I loved a lot of things about the denomination, still do, but had never felt fully at home, fully comfortable at the church. It’s not that no one ever attempted to welcome me. The older members of the congregation were warm and sweet and would try to greet me regularly with, “Good morning, Shannon!” (Differentiating me from my eight-years-younger, shorter, much-skinnier sister was never one of their strong suits. I think it took a while before they even realized there were two of us.)
I said that, yes, I knew his sister from church. “I’ve thought about going to church,” he said organizing novelty, nerdy, sometimes off-color merchandise on the shelf. “But everyone at churches always seem so happy. I’m not happy enough to go to church.” His life wasn’t always happy. He wasn’t always happy. Maybe he wasn’t welcomed.
He probably didn’t fully believe me, but I said I got it. And I really did. I got the I’m-not-happy-or-perfect-enough-for-this-shit feeling. Growing up in modern evangelicalism, at least for me, was a lot like growing up in an air-pocket left over from the 1950’s. And the air was getting stale.
I read a book in middle school for my church small group that had an entire chapter dedicated to the importance of “cultivating a submissive spirit” while we were young so that we’d be nice little godly June Cleavers by the time we’d found ourselves husbands. And, much like the actual 1950’s, our own lives and families didn’t look anything like Leave it the Beaver and I didn’t feel anything like a junior June Cleaver. Things were messy, sometimes even scary. So we faked it. We smiled, we nodded, we looked the part. And we likely felt like we were each the only imposers, the only ones crying or screaming behind our perfectly painted faces.
Our messiness wasn’t welcomed. Or brokenness wasn’t allowed. We weren’t happy enough.
While sometimes I feel — and perhaps this is unsubstantiated — like the pressure to fake a life-is-perfect smile is exacerbated within the context of church, it certainly isn’t limited to church. I felt pretty guarded around the time I met my now-husband. I was about 23 and just starting college; life was only just beginning to recover from a tornado of crisis that’d ripped the shingles off the roof and pulled the white picked fence up by its roots. I felt scary and broken and like no one would really get the frightful, damaged parts of me that I kept out of sight. And, based on all of my experiences up to this point, this idea wasn’t unfounded. In fact, I knew if I took the risk of opening up they might even make me feel worse if they squirted some citric-drenched happy-go-lucky cliches all over my already raw little heart. I wasn’t okay. I was hurting; I was angry, the result of the hurting. But I smiled.
I’d felt guarded around the Mr. Man too as we were getting to know each other until one day when we were sitting in the school library talking, and somehow the conversation turned from midterms and teachers with unclear assignment sheets to loss, grief. He talked about his grandparents who were very dear to him, and the pain of losing them. His voice choked up as he blinked a little too much in order to keep the excess water from dripping onto his cheek.
He’d felt the tornado tear through his life. A tornado that brings destruction and loss, never munchkins nor ruby slippers. There was something hiding behind his smile, too. And knowing that allowed me to slowly demolish, brick by brick, my own walls that’d been standing steadfastly between us.
From the time we’re little kids we’ve been told by society and the tall, imagine-less ones to “Sit ups straight” and “Cross your legs” and “Don’t talk about the ant infestation in the kitchen.” And not only is letting our vulnerable selves out for a walk scary, it also seems to be considered worse than slouching. Don’t let them see. Cover it up. Smile. So there’s something about having people say “Me too!” in response to my cracks and insecurities that makes me feel welcomed, safe. “It’s okay, we’re like you. We get it. You’re welcomed. Welcome.”
Anne Lamott, who I consider to be the patron saint of the broken and messy, says: “I told [my friends] about my most vile behavior, and they said, ‘Me, too!’ I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, ‘Ditto. Yay. Welcome.'” She goes on to say, “This welcome towards myself took a big adjustment, a rebalancing of my soul. There had been so much energy thrown into performance, achievement, and disguise” (from Small Victories, pg. 22-23). We get good at disguise.
About a year ago, just a few weeks after the Mr. Man and I had gotten married, a friend and her husband came over for dinner. I was warming up I-just-cleaned-out-the-cupboards homemade soup on the stove as we talked in the kitchen. She pointed at my stove top, all black and shiny and perfectly clean. There wasn’t a single crumb on that thing. “It’s so clean!” she said. “Mine’s never clean.” I didn’t say anything; I didn’t tell her about how I’d assumed her stove top must have been clean enough to eat right off of (everyone has clean stove tops expect for me, right?), so I’d been frantically scrubbing away at the various caked-on stuff only a few minutes before they’d arrived. I’d worn makeup, too — don’t always do that. And I’d made the bed and dusted. I’d cleaned up. I’d smiled.
Maybe I should’ve told her about my frantic scrubbing; we could’ve laughed about it. Maybe I should’ve said, “Me too!” Maybe that’s how we welcome each other, and how we eventually, slowly but gradually, learn to welcome ourselves. Maybe saying “Me too!” is one of the first steps towards the self-care we all so desperately need.