I am mourning myself this week. The Tineke I once was.
Two formal occasions in one week?
Cue a meltdown, because I find myself no more equal to doing my own hair than last time I tried. There is nothing like a curling iron to make me feel inadequate. Why couldn’t I have learned how to do this at “the proper time”?
Back when my peers were perfecting the wrist maneuvers required for perfect curls and experimenting with eye makeup, I was reading. I was writing. I was scoffing at the amount of time they wasted in front of the mirror.
By the time I was brave enough to own up to being “fearfully and wonderfully made”—in my body no less than in the curves of my mind—the “proper time” had passed me by.
Ah, the “proper time”… Apparently I also missed the proper time to master the art(?) of selfies. Because I tried taking a photo of my disappointing hairdo for this post, and, well, it didn’t go so well.
I’ve missed a lot of “proper time” memos. Not least of which was the opportune time to pass a driver’s test.
I do not appreciate rubbing shoulders with my weakness. The handshake of A Moment of Truth has an awfully firm grip.
Tears stinging, barely restraining myself from throwing the curling iron against the wall, I see in the mirror the face of a little girl who did not want to grow up. And through the back door of my heart come trouping memories of a magnificent past when I was strong. And it is just like Catherynne Valente says of the girl, September:
When she felt afraid…she could take her memories out and slip them on like a shawl of fabulous gems.
– from The Girl Who Soared over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two
As I wrote recently in “Does Your Imagination Have to Grow Up?” I was one of those kids to whom puberty was a curtain falling on my entire world. And like the girl, September, whose mundane life in Nebraska cannot compare with her past forays into Fairyland Above and Below, the frizzing mess of misshapen curls I see in the mirror today is a far cry from the reflection I never used to have time for—the head of a kid with too much going on to waste a glance in the glass.
I used to be invincible. Picking up languages left and right (5 of them to be exact, not counting accents), carrying water on my head, slinging black little sisters on my hip, climbing trees weighed down by poisonous fruit, teaching Sunday school in my 4th language and starting a summer school so my friends could learn to read.
…at the ripe old age of 11…
I used to fly the world like my kite… Watch it tug in the wind of possibility. Reel it in only to enjoy the fight.
As I remember it, I was queen of joy.
Not afraid of anything. Except telephones and doorbells. And leaving Africa. And growing up.
Okay, I was afraid of a number of things. But not like today. Back then my fears could be added up without the help of a calculator.
And, perhaps most vivid to me: I was confident in my body. Confident enough to take it for granted. To make boasts.
I remember the day that changed. When the boys at school (my friends, mind you) pulled me aside and broke the news to me: I was going down. My hips were soon going to widen (“so you can have babies, you know”), and I’d no longer be able to beat them at foot races. “Plus, we’re getting stronger now,” they pointed out, gleeful.
I was defiant. And aghast.
Truth be told, I trembled in my metaphorical boots (really, I was barefoot, of course). And next time I raced, vowing they were wrong, my imagination outstripped me, and I swore I could feel those hips of mine stretching outside my control already. And I lost. Not only to Luke, who was admittedly faster than me sometimes, but also to Volker. And soon, to Craig… and… every last one of them.
The curtain fell with a grind and shudder. The velvet folds swished over my prostrate form and Pity pulled my feet from beneath and took me backstage.
Where I’ve been ever since.
I have learned to smile over these recollections. Learned to crow over my dread.
To talk of my grief in the past tense.
But on a week like this—seeing that familiar look on my face in the mirror—I recall the shame of losing that first footrace of enforced womanhood. And the “shawl of fabulous gems” catches the truth and sends light cascading over my present—light enough to see my sadness by.
I am not actually over growing up. Secretly, I’m not indifferent to the joy-pirating Captain Change. I know I’m supposed to be. But… I am not. The Captain still fells me.
Poor September. Everyone has their invisible cloak of all things past. Some shimmer and some float. Some cut all the way down to the bone and farther still.
There are some troubles a 28-year-old should definitely be over. Fear of becoming a grown-up is cute in an eleven-year-old. At almost-29 it is a public embarrassment. After all, isn’t maturity something to strive after? Aren’t we to graduate from spiritual “milk” to the meat of I-can-handle-it?
But, no…I’ve spent enough time trying to earn Saint Paul’s approval. I’ve exhausted myself trying to make the cut with the “spiritual people.” Afraid to be numbered with the “infants in Christ.” “I fed you with milk, not solid food,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” (1 Cor. 3:1–3)
When the curtain fell and I swallowed defeat, I tried so hard. So hard to be mature. To follow up my glory days with feats of equal confidence, especially in the realm of spiritual devotion. But my body had balked and betrayed me. And reeling in shock, my confidence evaporated.
And people wonder that I’ve done so little with my many talents and the advantages of my multicultural upbringing? People wonder?
I feigned a gracious surrender when I really caved to fear.
Of course, Paul’s “solid food” is not actually the stuffy all-work-and-no-play adulthood I find suffocating. I see now I was never destined for the so-called maturity of solemnity.
But it took me years to see this. Years of stuffing away grief and putting lids on my outrage. Years of thrusting aside my creative abilities in preference for a new way to be strong, to be elite: spiritual authority.
Yes, like Simon the Sorcerer. Yes, I wanted it. Spiritual power. In prayer.
Not very mature of me? But what’s a deposed queen of joy to do when the curtain falls on her act? When she looks about her and finds she’s got nothing to make it in this new world of grown-up women and their sexy coifs, smooth skin, and hunky diamonds? Their playdates and designer handbags? Just give up?
I may still feel deposed, helpless, but I am not a quitter. So I am trying. Trying to find out what it really means to be a grown-up. To be alive, rather.
It’s hard for me to differentiate between false maturity and true. I try to reclaim my true self: my imaginative, playful, eager self. But I get flustered worrying if people will mistake these attempts at childlikeness for childishness. Am I just floundering in a delayed adolescence? Making a vain stab at innocence? Hiding from A Moment of Truth?
No. Whatever my life looks like, I’m not hiding. I’m fighting. Fighting to become unselfconscious again. To have better things to do than stare in a mirror.
And sometimes there are casualties. All the kindly folk who give my antics bemused smiles. All the people who ask me pointed questions about “The Future” and don’t-you-want-kids-? … They often get slapped in the face.
Because I have to be mulish to keep from cowing—from caving again to that temptation to be strong. Because I am no longer strong. I can’t afford to be. But I’m no more used to it.
There are so many kinds of advice I could use, aren’t there? Advice to stop worrying. To stop imagining things. To realize no one’s even thinking about me, never mind disappointed. To shrug off the pressure. To forgive myself.
(I’ll let you in on a secret that ought to be public knowledge: the more advice I’m offered, the less likely I am to take it…)
But, staring at the hard facts—that “I’m still not over it”—I turn to Someone who does not give advice. To Someone who trusts Truth can speak for itself.
Who says He hasn’t got a timetable for “moving on.” Didn’t come up with dicing human life into age categories and achievements anyway.
Doesn’t care whether I am strong or not. Whether I can curl my hair to satisfaction or not. Or get my act together and have babies. Or write-the-book-that’s-in-you. Or go back to school.
Or get over it.
I’m not the One who made you grow old. I’m not the One who dropped the curtain. I’m not the One telling you it’s infantile to be angry.
I grieve for your innocence too.