Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Bravery, Blossoming, and Being Too Much

I was brave today. 

What a silly way to start a post, right?  But I don't know how else to start it.  I was brave.  I WAS brave.  I did something that intimidated me, and I was brave. 

Perhaps really, though, what I did today was a culmination of bravery.  It's been a long, hard process. 

Today, I gave the sermon at church.  It was on ableism, and on loving and accepting people with disabilities.  As with most everything I write, this writing came straight from my heart.  I didn't pull any punches; in fact, a friend who read it described it as "fearless."  When I sent it to my minister for her to review ahead of time, I let her know: "I didn't expect it to be so...gutsy."  But it was, because that was what had to be written.  It is truth, and it is reality, and my voice is one that tries to speak truth and reality.  So that is what I did. 

Let me back up.  When I was in college, I was terrified of public speaking.  I would lose my voice the day before oral presentations, and I would often be sick before I had to give the presentation.  I hated it.  Luckily (although it didn't feel lucky at the time), I got lots of practice...but even with practice, I hated it.  Anytime I was given the choice of 10-15 minute presentation, or a 20 page paper, I never even had to think twice.  I've always been a writer and 20 pages was something I could crank out easily enough. 

Eventually, with exposure, I moved from anxiety manifesting as illness down to just trembling.  My voice shook, my hands shook, my body was awful.  I hated this almost more than vomiting before presentations.  The shaking was noticeable, and almost entirely out of my control.  Plus, the shaking made me embarrassed, which made my face turn red.  But not just red -- no, we're not talking about getting a little pink in the cheeks.  We're talking about so-red-my-face-throbbed type of red.  Tomato red.  And it would not go away until about 30 minutes after I was done.  And, just when you thought I would reach my peak redness, I would stumble over a word and manage to become even more red.  I don't think Crayola even has a color that could replicate the shade of red I managed to obtain.  In spite of all the practice I had giving presentations in my liberal arts college, I never got over it.  I presented my senior thesis masquerading as a trembling tomato. 

In the year I took off between college and graduate school, I worked for a local Mental Health Association.  That year, I presented "Kids On The Block" puppet shows at local schools on bullying, drugs and alcohol, and physical and sexual abuse.  It was hard at first...but I quickly realized that (1) elementary school kids are the most forgiving audience ever and (2) they didn't care about me.  They were talking to the puppets.  Also?  I was wearing a black hood with mesh over the face and stood behind the puppets so nobody could see me.  I even had my picture in the newspaper, and nobody never would have been able to identify me.  It was, in a word, fantastic.  Towards the end of the year, I started doing the Yello Dyno curriculum on personal body safety for kindergarten classrooms with no puppet, and no hood/mask covering my face, and I found, surprisingly, that I could present without shaking, and largely without turning red.  Apparently, those puppets weren't just therapeutic for the kids.

Once I reached graduate school, I would still be nervous before presenting, but it was a manageable level of anxiety.  I still turned all sorts of red, but I learned to work with it, and it never presented a huge barrier.  If given a choice, I will still, always, opt for the paper over the presentation...but this is purely a preference and no longer a choice made out of fear. 

At this point, public speaking isn't necessarily something that I love, but I can do it, and I do it regularly.  I try to do it regularly, even, so that I don't somehow backslide into that world of red faces and trembling.  Plus, I like to make myself do things that are hard every now and again.  I hear it builds character.  So while I still wouldn't put public speaking on my list of Top 10 or even Top 20 Fun Things To Do, my feelings have slowly but surely changed from Not Sure I'll Make It Out Alive to a big, resounding Meh. 

Aside from the actual act of speaking aloud, though, the bigger struggle for me has been that of voice.  I like to think that I have always had a clear and strong sense of voice in my writing.  And, for this reason, my writing (up until only a few years ago) stayed tightly locked in files on my computer, in folders in desk drawers, and in the many, many, many journals I kept from the age of 9 onward.  A deadly combination of bad creative writing teachers, self-consciousness, and a sense of shame from always feeling like I was emotionally "too much" created this feeling of my writing and my voice being...well...too much.  I kept writing, of course, because not writing is simply not an option, but I kept it hidden.  I had to.  Writing was the most personal expression of myself, the place I put my passion without being afraid of being "too much." 

This is not to say that I was disingenuous, necessarily.  I was quiet, but I was always true to what I believed, and my passions seeped out in small ways.  That's the thing about being "too much."  It's impossible to contain all of your much-ness in one body.  I learned from a young age how to pick and choose how much of my "too much" seeped into the world -- how much of my too emotional, too clear, too truthful, too excited, too passionate self could be in conversations and in relationships with others.  I was very fortunate in my younger years, though, that I was never actively silenced.  People heard and largely respected what of my voice I shared.  Aside from when I became "too much," people nearly always respected and responded positively to my voice.

That changed very quickly once I reached graduate school.  In my diversity classes in particular, I was honest in my journals and in class.  In my writing and with my adviser particularly, I was willing to be myself.  I showed her a lot of my too much-ness.  I was passionate, and I was me. 

In spite of this (or, perhaps, because of), for a solid year, the only feedback I received was that I needed to work on "finding my voice."  I was consistently told things like "the thing about you is that you are someone who does wonderful and amazing things, but no one will ever notice you."  At the end of each quarter, my feedback forms told me that I had to work on finding my voice.  I talked with professors and my adviser about it -- "how do I do this?" I asked.  "I am being me...really...when I have an opinion, I voice it.  When I have something to say, I say it.  When I disagree, I state it.  What am I missing?"

Nobody could put their finger on it.  I was told to participate more.  I was told to speak out more.  I was told to disagree with others more.  And I did, and I did, and I did...and still the feedback came rolling in (always from the same person): "find your voice.  Work on finding and using your voice.  Still not finding your voice."

And about a year into the program, I snapped.  I remember being in a study room in the basement of the library and calling my sister, crying, that I just didn't understand what they wanted from me.  I have a voice.  A strong voice.  I used my voice.  And they weren't listening.  I was so frustrated, I was to the point of considering dropping out of the program. 

So I did the only thing I could think to do: I wrote a journal entry for my diversity class on the issue of voice.  This paper was turned in to the co-teachers for the class, one of whom was my adviser.  I wrote about my voice, and the power I see and hear in my voice, and the ways in which I see myself using my voice.  I did something super risky, and I called the professor in question out by name.  I wrote in that paper: "I understand that you think I have not found my voice.  However, I sincerely think the issue is not that I have not found my voice.  The problem lies in the fact that you are not hearing me.  I have found my voice.  The problem is that you are not listening."

Getting back that paper was terrifying, and the note that read "let's talk" next to that particular passage was whatever is beyond terrifying.  But we did -- we talked.  And my eval at the end of the quarter noted that I had found my voice.  It was never an issue again.

But I have to admit: I was completely beat down by this process.  I internalized the message that, in spite of what I do, no one will ever notice me.  And if that wasn't enough, then life completely fell apart. 

Sexual assault, bullying, harassment, victim blaming...that'll silence you, for sure.  It wasn't possible to "find my voice" during this time.  I tried -- god knows I tried -- but it just wasn't possible.  I tried to use my voice.  I tried to advocate for myself.  And -- it wasn't entirely unsuccessful, but it wasn't entirely successful, either.  It was a hugely shaming, silencing time.

So I started this blog with the sole intention of re-finding and sharing my voice.  And that, amazingly, is what I have done.  Every post I make, every time I write something about anything, it takes an act of bravery.  It is an act of reclaiming my voice and of reminding myself that it exists.  That it is strong, and it is worthy.

My challenge lately for myself has been not only to share my voice here, in writing, but to also submit my writing to competitions and for publication.  I have been challenging myself to share my writing aloud.  I won't lie: it's fucking terrifying.  But my voice ­­- my voice - is too strong, and too passionate not to share.  It's why I have gone through this process and the pain and the work of reclaiming it.  I want people to hear me.  I don't want to be the person who will never be noticed. 

The past two nights leading up to the service today, I had the same dream.  I prepared for the service, was ready, got to church, 10:00 rolled around...and no one came.  It was me, the guy who was playing the piano, and the minister...and that was it.  The sanctuary was empty, and we all went home.  In my dream, I was devastated. 

Because the fear -- the real fear that founded this dream -- it wasn't that no one would come.  I knew that bodies would be there.  It wasn't about the number of people, even.  It was about the fact that I was terrified that I wouldn't be heard.  I went in to do this today knowing too well that it was possible that I would not be heard.  That people could deny my voice.  That I could be silenced, in one way or another.   

It was a risk.  It was a risk to stand up there at all, and it was an even bigger risk to share this passion, to share my too much-ness.  I knew that what I was saying would take people out of their comfort zone.  I knew I would challenge them to consider other ways of viewing people and issues they may not have even considered.  I knew that my passion seeped out in my writing, and that it would come across in my voice.  It had to.  I care about this issue too much.

But you know what happened?  I wasn't silenced.  I wasn't shamed.  I wasn't told that I was too much, or that I had to find my voice.  I wasn't told that my voice would never be heard. 

Instead, what happened was simple and beautiful. 

I was heard.  And my voice -- it mattered.  It started conversations.  It sparked thoughts.  It may have opened minds.  I hope it opened some hearts. 

I spoke up.  I was heard.  And my voice mattered. 

The only words I have to describe what that feels like is that it feels like something in my chest is breaking open.  That happens a lot at church.  It's been happening a lot lately.  I don't even have words for this sort of gratitude.

So yes -- I was brave today.  My intention for bravery this's working.  I am reminded again of my very favorite quote (which, I swear, will become a tattoo for me in some form one of these days):

"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."  - Anaïs Nin.

Blossoming is painful.  It requires bravery.  But it is so much better than that pain of remaining tight inside the bud.

Let's blossom, shall we?


  1. Beautiful! Thanks for writing that. Wow! You have come a long way =) I don't remember you being shy in college... maybe because I liked you too much to notice. I could see how much you had inside of you, and loved you for it.