To Meet Their Gaze

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I came across this picture of my four year old self when I was at my parent’s home a while back. I remember this moment, my birthday party, everyone singing happy birthday to me, stuck between being delighted and squirming at being the focus of the room. I didn’t know where to look, if I should join in and sing, and I distinctly not knowing what to do with my hands. (As you can see, I settled with a stiff nonchalance…)

The brilliant Madeleine L’Engle says this about getting older.

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still a part of me, and always will be… This does not mean I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages… the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

We are the culmination of all of our selves. I still carry that shy, self-conscious little girl with me wherever I go.

Still torn between longing to be known, to be seen, to be delighted in, and simultaneously fearing being exposed, being seen as less-than desirable. I still find myself squirming under someone else’s attention. I can’t meet their gaze for the elusive wonderings of how they’re perceiving me; the weight I’m putting on that answer haunts me, and feeling the sting of insecurity, I look away.

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I recently read this simple statement that has stuck with me in its profundity: “Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me.” (Brene Brown)  It is so true. I am so drawn to those salt of the earth people who are willing to be seen, and in the revealing, I feel this relief and invitation to reveal more as well. Yet the thought of that exposure is terrifying, and I jump into reflex self-protection mode. I settle for attempting to feign confidence, but I fear it might just come across as aloof indifference- isolating me from the connection I deeply long for.

This realization isn’t new to me, or to the human race. There have been so many moments of surprised relief when I see someone else struggling with this vulnerability paradox. My twenties have been a series of perpetual “you too?!” epiphanies as I rediscover that what it means to be human is to be caught between our desire to be seen and our knee jerk reflex to hide.   I have to laugh at myself when I feel like I’m coming across this great truth and articulating it, only to come across an old journal entry and realizing I’ve been here before. Oh yeah, we are all just human. Gloriously, paradoxically, imperfectly, beautifully human. That paralyzing and lie infested fear is not necessary to cling to. I will need to be continually reminded of this. Again and again, I need those brave writer’s words of truth, those heart to hearts with a kindred spirit, those encounters with people who shatter my presumptions.

Even at the risk of being repetitive, and borderline cliche, I need to keep articulating these realizations, (my coworkers are just human, my boss is just human, that person I’m intimidated by is just human, I am just human) as naming this gives me the bravery to show up and “meet their gaze,” to be fully present to the beauty that is unfolding in the moment. It is good to be reminded that that person sitting across the table is carrying a shy and self-conscious four-year-old in them too. The epiphanies free me from the trap of taking myself too seriously, to move out of my head and into Reality.

Just like my four-year-old self asked to have the same book read to me again and again, I need to be reminded over and over, the story of my own humanity as I step into the process of becoming wholly myself.

Confessions of a Tall Woman

I am 72 and a half inches tall. 

Not that anyone’s counting. 

Actually, that’s not true. Seems like everyone’s counting. And commenting. 

I am not exaggerating when I say that I get a comment from a stranger on my height on a weekly basis.

Ranging from harmless:

“Wow. You’re tall!”

“How tall are you?”

“Do you play basketball?”

to more Really? You really just said that out loud to me?? comments.

“You’re so tall, you’re as big as a universe.” (From one of my students… good use of simile… don’t ever say that again.)

“That’s the biggest girl I’ve ever seen!” (Translated by a “friend” for me in Portuguese when I was in Brazil.)

“You’re pretty tall. I guess you only date guys taller than you?” (an attempt at a pick up line, I suppose??)

or this one that I overheard at Target a couple of weeks ago:

“Dude, that’s messed up!” (friend) “What?” “That girl’s like two feet taller than me!”

I am just over six feet tall, although various strangers have passionately disputed this, like the guy at a gas station who argued with me after asking how tall I was “No way. You are taller than that.” But undeniably, I am taller than most. It is noteworthy. It is, I think, what people notice most about me. At least as far as first impressions go.

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Ever since I can remember, this– being tall– has been one of my biggest sources of insecurity, of shame. When the question gets asked “What’s the one thing you would change about yourself,” my mind jumps to my height. Every time I hear someone make a comment as I pass by them, every time someone gives me the up-down glance, every time there’s a group picture and I am told to head to the back, I cringe. It happens when I look at the pictures where I’m a head taller than everyone else, when I’m hugging shorter people and wonder if they fear I’ll crush them as I awkwardly squat down. With every comment from well meaning strangers, I feel this sickening mix of anger and shame in the pit of my stomach.

I somehow thought that body image was something I’d leave behind in junior high, and while I am much more comfortable in my own skin than I was as a gangly thirteen year old, the fact of the matter is that our bodies can be one of our biggest sources of shame. It’s part of being human.

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes– Allie, get over yourself. It could be a lot worse. Isn’t height admired in our culture?

Yeah, you’re probably right. And  when I hear a tall comment, I know cognitively that it’s not meant as a negative thing, but when I hear it again and again and again, when I hear “tall” what I’m really hearing is abnormal, large, giant.

So this came up a couple of months ago when the guy I was dating mentioned that he felt self conscious about my height. “I’ve just never been with someone that’s the same size as me. It’s just… different.” 

My first reaction was “Well of course. I feel weird about it, so it makes sense that you would too.” He was, and is, allowed to have his opinions and reactions to things. I appreciated his honesty.

But as I was driving home, the first tear slid down my cheek and the devastation set in. I realized I had been hoping that the person I was with would love that I was tall, and help me to overcome this insecurity. I thought that someone else’s acceptance would free me to accept it myself. I have long suspected that this quality in me has made men in my life uncomfortable and insecure and he just confirmed it. Well, that f***ing sucks. 

When my pity party came to an end, I assessed the situation. 

  1. I am not getting any shorter any time soon.
  2. It doesn’t look like people are going to stop noticing or commenting on my height either. 
  3. I cannot rely on someone else to bring me to a place of self acceptance. 

The only thing I can change in this situation is the power I am giving other people to affect my self image. I resolved to do the work, submitting to the process of not merely accepting myself, all 72.5 inches of me, but delighting in who I am and the way I was made. 

Because, I don’t know about you, but it sometimes isn’t super helpful when well-intentioned people try to help me feel proud about my height, offering benefits of tallness, or reminding me that height is valued in our culture. A guy at a wedding once told me that I was slouching and that I should stand tall, and while I think it was meant as encouragement, it just made me neurotically self-conscious about my posture for months. No, it has become clear to me that I need to do this on my own terms. 

I’m not entirely sure how to do this.. although, I don’t think it’s a formula or a 12 step process. It’s probably a long road of choosing, in the moment, to stop comparing, to be grateful, to not take myself so seriously, and to ask the people who ask if I play basketball  if they play mini-golf. 

Right now, I still feel a bit raw from that conversation a few months ago. I haven’t worn my one pair of high heels in months. I think of snarky comments to people’s comments on my height (but only after the moment has passed though… isn’t that always the case?) But I think coming to this realization is huge. Choosing to write about it and share it with you, dear reader, is a victory, and I am all about naming the moments of victory. 

In the year 2015, I think I have been entering into the process of becoming a woman. Which sounds weird maybe, but hear me out.  This revelation came on a different car ride, this past January (I always seem to have my epiphany moments on long car rides…) I was in this swirling storm of comparison and insecurity, painfully aware of how much I was basing my worth on my perceptions of others opinions of me. I felt this call to step away from that– to step into groundedness in who I am really. And then I wrote this poem, which is not something I do often, but it felt right. It has been a good anthem, and many times this year it has been a beautiful reminder. So I am sharing it with you.

I am a woman

confident and soft

elegant and untamed,

the Gentle Wild One.

I am a woman, steady and strong.

Still waters run deep

in a soul that is fed by 

the Spring of Living Water.

Yet I will not apologize 

or be afraid of my own humanity.

I refuse to be daunted by failure.

I will not shy away from the raw places,

for I am a woman.

Yes, I am a woman,

comfortable in my own skin.

In quiet confidence

I am able to Meet Their Gaze,

refusing to shrink away in fear 

or strive to meet perceived expectations.

I am a woman:

a Truth Speaker,

a Beauty Bringer,

a Created Co-Creator.

My words carry weight,

they bring life 

and the kind of hope that

diminishes the burden.

I am a woman, and I refuse 

to be intimidated by the lie of comparison,

the whisper of shame and insecurity,

and I simply have no time for bullshit.

I am a woman, 

and I am at home in the arms of

the Happy Trinity

I rest secure,

yet my hands clasp the hands of my sisters.

In connection and solitude

In the fray and in the stillness

I am 

a woman. 

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