Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 6: Trust Me. Uhm, No Thanks.
“…I had work to do to make my body bigger and bigger and bigger and safer.” — Roxane Gay, Hunger
I am 18 chapters into Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. A recurring theme is the idea of safety, and how, for her, gaining weight has been a way to keep herself safe. I am realizing more and more with each line of hers I read that much of my life is centered around keeping myself safe. It’s why I can never keep the weight off. It’s why I don’t have a romantic life. It’s why I don’t own property. All my energy goes toward creating that safety I never experienced as a child. I have no reference point as to what it feels like to be safe. I see in the relationships and families of others what it might look like, but any attempt at feeling safe is always performative on my part.
Having a bigger body like mine is like having a cloak of invisibility. Despite the fact that I take up a lot of space, if I walk into a bar or a party or cultural gathering, other than the people I already know, people look right past me. If you are fat, people think you’re unintelligent because you obviously can’t handle the mind over body control thing. (In the most backhanded compliment ever, my father once said to me, “You are too smart to be that fat.”) They don’t stop to actually look at you and assess whether they find you attractive—beauty truly being in the eye of the beholder—but they check the box for “too fat,” which lets them off the hook for even trying. Which is fine with me. I keep even my oldest friends a little bit at arm’s length because if they truly saw me at my worst—my saddest, my angriest, my most depressed, my most manic—then I know they’d leave me.
Relationships are the most fragile thing of all in my mind; they’re not built to withstand utter honesty and vulnerability. That kind of thing just places a burden on other people, well, at least my vulnerability and need does. So better to stay in the safe place, where you only reveal part of yourself. It’s better not to trust that anyone could actually stand the real you lest you undo the precious bits of safety you’ve found in your relationships.
(I just reread that paragraph, and noticed that toward the middle, I stopped saying “me” and moved into the general “you.” Even that distancing is a trick for keeping myself safe. It’s true that writing about the personal can lead to the universal, but modulating to the universal can also protect the personal.)
Even my identity as a writer is predicated on this idea of staying safe. I started writing because I learned that it was dangerous to express emotions in my particular household. It was dangerous to be angry or sad. It was even dangerous to be happy because you could be reprimanded for being too happy, incurring the cut of my mother’s “Don’t get carried away” or my father’s sheer indifference to what most would have considered happy news. So I squashed what I could down inside me, and if they insisted on leaking out, I put those feelings on paper. I wrote mostly stories when I first started, before I hit high school and threw my lot in with poetry, and they were all about murder or suicide. A young woman shoves a butcher knife in the old boyfriend who ended up wanting to marry someone else (while wearing a tattered lace wedding dress, of course). Another young woman commits suicide to punish her mother for not accepting the girl’s accidental pregnancy, her final message spray painted on a wall, “Please forgive me.” (My ideas around suicide were clearly not very developed when I was in my early teens.)
Poetry was an even better hiding place as I could obscure the roiling inside me in opaque images, coming after each other so quickly that there was no space to interpret them, or appreciate their depth. In my 20s, I wrote about music and musicians, unconsciously believing—wrongly it turned out—that if I wrote about other people, if I focused on deconstructing the blues that shook me to my core, I could keep the turmoil inside me invisible.
I’d always had a technically good singing voice so I took voice lessons in Chicago with a flamboyant woman—Jackie? Judy?—who would say to me, “You’re cooking up something good but you’re not dishing it out.” The same was true of my foray into acting. I had a small talent that could, perhaps, have been nurtured into something more, but it was unsafe for me to reveal myself that way, it was unsafe for me to metaphorically bare myself on the stage.
Staying safe means I don’t really dream for myself. Or, to be more accurate, I dream big, I write down plans with the intention of really exploring them, and then I let those dreams expire on the pages of my journal. I find something else to be enthusiastic about until the urge to even dip a toe into unsafe waters subsides. I don’t set goals, because reaching goals means stepping outside of my comfort zone.
As I’ve written before, I do grab opportunities, because I have learned the trick of bravado, which can be surprisingly useful when you need to apply to grad school or a prestigious fellowship or even send a batch of poems out into the world. I’ve learned to perform safety in ways which allow me to have a fairly decent life. But there’s always a backup plan: Oh, if X doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine where I am. And if X does work out, then the bravado kicks in mostly because I’m too scared to disappoint anyone, people-pleasing another form of seeking safety.
I wonder sometimes if I’ll only ever have a mediocre life. because I haven’t been able to consistently build that bedrock of safety beneath my feet. I use the term “mediocre” in a relative sense. I know that I get to do extraordinary things in this life: interview deeply imaginative artists who are sometimes even celebrities; engage with thought-provoking and inspiring visual art; explore my ideas in interior design in a light-filled apartment that makes my heart sing and makes me feel the way you feel when you get to home base during a game of tag. But I also think that the extraordinary things I do are merely glimpses of what I’m capable of. What more could I do, who else could I connect with, how could I change the world in a larger way if I could figure out how to feel safe in my own skin?
I try to find safety with God (and I thank him every day for his infinite patience and grace with me cause I promise you I’m a trial), but even that relationship feels unsafe sometimes not because of who God is, but because much of the cruelty in my childhood was the result of my mother’s privileging of religion and ministry over anything and anyone in her life, including her children. And there is safety, too, in not always trying very hard with God. A successful relationship with God requires action. It requires letting go of whatever it is we have come to think of as giving us safety. It requires trust.
I know there are others who have had emotionally abusive childhoods who manage to somehow build a platform of safety in spite of their histories. I know there are role models out there—like Roxane Gay—who have something to teach me. But right now that story of learning to feel consistently safe when you never had that overwhelmingly important early road map, that’s not my story. That’s not my story yet. That’s not my story yet?