When I think about my story, an image, or rather a vision, comes to mind. I am wearing an old, oversized Khaki trench coat. I have just encountered the strangest of objects blocking the path before me: a brightly colored shawl. As this little fantasy plays out in my mind, I am standing in front of an old grey curtain. My weather-beaten trench coat is dirty and tattered, but the angles remain sharp. Very linear! Despite its weathered appearance, it has maintained a kind of hardness. I am barely visible against the backdrop of the curtain. Never mind the spotlight. In its glaring light, I only seem to get smaller and to fade to another shade of pale.
When I first see the shawl, I can’t imagine it belongs to me.
I am drawn to its color, its texture, the softness of it. It seems so fluid. And the colors! Oh my goodness, the colors: Red chiffon with velvet butterflies. It is accented with turquoise and red sequins. I pick it up, run my fingers through it. I take it to my house and place it above the curtains in my room. I live with it for a while. Sometimes, I take it down and dance with it for just a moment, but never in front of the mirror and never for very long. The brilliance of it scares me. It seems foreign, but beyond that, it seems to carry with it an odd kind of responsibility.
For a long time, I still prefer the trench coat.
Underneath the trench coat, I can withstand the unexpected rain. I am not ready to be visible, exposed, available to the light. Until one day, I feel adventurous!
I wrap the shawl around me. The trench coat dissolves. Oddly, I feel less like I have found something and more like this shawl has been longing, for ages, to drape my lovely alabaster shoulders. Suddenly, I am standing before a shimmering white curtain. I am dressed in faded blue jeans and black boots (lined with faux fur, of course). I have on a black chiffon blouse; the white of my skin is faintly visible beneath it. The shawl is draped casually around my shoulders. My hair is flowing down my back and my head is wrapped in the most delightful satin scarf. Turquoise of course, (to match the sequins)! I am wearing red earrings. As the spotlight hits me, I hear myself shout: TA DA! No one is more surprised than I am.
I don’t remember where I read this or who wrote it, but there is this quote rattling around in my head:
It is not that we are different that matters, it is that we are ashamed of being different.
When I think about this quote, another picture forms in my mind. I see a little girl standing on the outside of a gate looking in. She’s wearing cowboy boots and jeans. She can see the other little girls on the other side of the gate. They are wearing ribbons and bows. They are playing with a little black and white ball in a kind of orderly fashion. They seem to know things about how to be and to relate with one another that little girl me can’t even fathom.
This little girl version of me can’t see that the gate is unlocked. She can’t speak or join the games. All she can see is that she is different, strange, unprepared for this new life in the city, for this new life of ribbons and bows and properness. She doesn’t realize that soccer is a game that can be learned or that properness is a skill.
No one tells her.
Even if she knew, she just wants her ponies back and all the wide-open spaces. She loves to watch the sun set. She feels so terribly alone, so terribly helpless. This little girl version of me interprets her loneliness as condemnation. She is filled with the shame of being different.
Now I can see myself at 16. I am standing in front of my mother. She is telling me about her God. He “will not be mocked” she tells me. I “will be punished; the wages of sin are death.” It resonates.
Not too much later my boyfriend throws me against the wall. I am still 16. I am sure my mother was right.
When I hit the wall, it resonates. It resonates. It resonates.
I am 22. Amazing Grace is playing. My father died a few days ago. I didn't make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye. Yet, somehow, I had already said it 100 times. That is what you do when you know it will happen and you just don't know when.
Here I am again at 24. I am in my mother's church listening to a her preacher tell us about her life.
Amazing Grace again!
I am wondering if the person who killed her is sitting in the pews right along with the rest of us.
Now I am at the cemetery with her casket...At her house stepping over the blood, trying to sort out the mess, waiting on the crime scene people to clean it all up. I don't really see her blood. It's like I died with her. The blood in my own veins feels more like ice. I have learned that I can survive anything and I am too young to know when to walk away.
I am 26. I have buried my dreams beneath my mother's casket. I am a mother myself now. I am in school again trying to overcome the time I lost to the murder and all the things that had to be done. I am in New York. I am about to earn my LL.M. in tax from New York University. I think I am the only nursing mother in my whole class!
Another image comes to mind. I am about 34 years old. I have put that degree to good use. I am sitting alone in my office. I have internalized the gate, which oddly, allowed me to cross over to the other side. I am on the inside now, and I am looking out. More often than I care to admit, I am daydreaming about those ponies and those wide-open spaces. I am trying very hard to be good enough, to fit in (and to avoid the punishment of my mother’s angry God).
I am all grown up now.
Yet not grown up at all.
I have three degrees (one from the top tax law program in the nation). I have worked in some of the largest law firms in the world. All these credentials form the fabric of my trench coat. I have risen to the unassailable level.
Well, not quite. But this old trench coat allows me to keep moving on. My skills are in demand. I am able to keep hiding out. When I become a little too visible, when the many ways in which I am different peak around the edges of my conformity, I pull out that old trench coat in the form of a resume and climb to a different rung on the ladder of success, always in a new place, in a new city, with a new kind of steely determination to be better this time, to be less of ME.
I am brittle and angry.
I have grown accustomed to being in control. At the same time, I am oddly wilted and weak. I look like a flower badly in need of water. I am the last to know it, or at least, I am the last to admit it.
Now I am 35 (about to turn 36). It is New Year’s Eve. I am in Mexico. I am staying at Dreams Resort (in retrospect, how apropos) near Tulum. I have begun toying with the notion that God is a She or at least that God has a feminine face. I am beginning to remember that I once embraced Women’s Studies and that I used to want to make a difference in this crazy world. I am waking up again to questions about truth and justice and to a longing for my own womanhood.
I decide to leave the resort for a while.
I walk into a bar in Tulum. My eyes meet his. He tells me (beneath the full moon, by the side of the Atlantic ocean) about the Zapatista rebels and about his home: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. I begin to read about this movement (as much a social movement as an armed conflict now).
I find a mirror in the masks worn by the indigenous rebels.
They are different too and they stand outside their own gate. Their message resonates: They want “a world where many worlds fit.” Maybe there is room for ME in this world after all.
I am 36. I am on a bus somewhere in the mountains of Chiapas. I am looking for my authentic sense of self.
I am 37. I am in San Cristóbal again. I buy a red shawl, chiffon with velvet butterflies and sequins. I place it over the window in my room. I look at it every day.
I am 38. The ache in my heart over the girl I abandoned on the outside of that gate (and by my mother's casket, and against the wall...) is becoming a crisis. It is howling at dawn and at dusk and all through the night. I finally ask for help. Real, concrete help. I have begun the desperate bid to find her.
When I find her, she asks me to leave behind my trench coat. She is whispering to me about dancing with the shawl. She claps every single time I glance at it. She likes to dance.
She calls this scarf “Grace” and she promises that its shelter will be warm, safe, and dazzling. She never promises me I will be “comfortable” in the way I was when I had the trench coat. She only promises that I will feel more at home than I have ever felt and that I will blossom. The blue jeans are her idea.
I am getting pretty close to my 39th birthday. There are hummingbirds outside my window in the garden behind my house in San Cristóbal. I look up the symbolic meaning of hummingbirds. It turns out that when they hover, their wings form the symbol of infinity.
As I look around in this moment, the present moment, the gate has transformed into a key. I see a door nearby. I don’t know what is behind the door, at least not in my rational mind. But I don’t hesitate this time. I know what I am after:
The richness of lives fully lived, of dreams fulfilled and hands held in the hour when dreams are born.
I once believed I had to know it all, figure everything out ahead of time.
I used to believe in tragedies and mistakes and trench coats. But I have learned that I can approach things in a different way. I can look at every obstacle as a challenge and every challenge as another opportunity to develop my wisdom and to move closer to my dreams.
I slip the key into the slot.
The door opens as soon as I turn the key.
I grab my shawl.
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Hence I ask not for good fortune ~
I am good fortune.
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing;
Strong and content, I travel the open road.
~ Walt Whitman