Empowered by Imperfection

The tulips and daffodils were blooming and the weather was Willamette Valley gray and tea bag soggy. I was a toothless redhead with serious eyes, bursting with excitement. In the past six months, I had taken many bold steps into the world of the big kids. I had finally started school. – Before he left us two years earlier, I had been so jealous of my big brother going off to school each day that I had created my own school and my imaginary friend, Kiki, was my teacher. – I had also seen my first movie the afternoon my teacher had wheeled in a magical machine into our classroom that told a story on a screen. I had seen my first television cartoons when I stayed with our neighbor’s sons the week before Christmas while my parents traveled for my father’s work. I can remember how delighted I was as I sat, eyes glued on the screen watching Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. I was over the moon that Santa had red hair just like me.

Now, here I was in my bedroom excitedly contemplating another set of wonderful events while I gathered my coloring books and crayons. My mom was in the kitchen finishing up my Easter Bunny birthday cake, decorating him with jelly bean eyes and black licorice whiskers. The next day we were having an Easter Egg hunt at school and my parents had friends over at the moment. I always loved when they would come up for a visit. I could count on having a coloring partner when they visited. I remember how hard I tried to color as nicely as Jennifer. I wanted to impress her as she was the one who had taught me several tricks to color within the lines and make it look like I wasn’t scribbling.

As I headed back out to the living room, my arms full of coloring books and crayons, I suddenly remembered something my teacher, Mrs. White, had told us to ask our parents that evening. I bound into the room, calling out to my parents, “Guess what; guess what my teacher told us today!”

“What did Mrs. Green tell you today, Ellie?” My dad said with a chuckle and a wink.

“Daddy!” I exclaimed with mock exasperation, “That’s not my teacher’s name! It’s Mrs. White!”

“Oh, oh that’s right. What did Mrs. Red say?” He joked again.

“Daddy! Mrs. White said if we bring in a quarter, we can get an Adam’s Apple t-shirt!” 

The four adults sitting around the table were struggling to keep straight faces, but I didn’t notice. I persisted with earnestness only a young child can exude. All the while, the adults surrounding me were rapidly losing the ability to hold back their laughter.

“Please, Daddy, please can I get one? Can I have a quarter for an Adam’s Apple t-shirt?”

At this point, there were no straight faces in the room around me as the adults broke into full throated laughter. Fighting back his laughter, my father tried to quiz me to better understand what I was talking about.

I stood there utterly confused at the grownups’ reaction. I couldn’t understand what I had said that was so funny. It didn’t make sense why they didn’t believe me. My stomach twisted itself into knots of crackling electrical wires. Hot stinging tears of shame etched a path down my checks. In all my almost six years of life, I couldn’t remember feeling more humiliated and ashamed of myself.

Seeing my consternation, my parents and their friends, turned to comfort me. “Oh honey,” my mother assured me, “We weren’t laughing at you. It’s just funny. You know how the chores Amelia Bedilia is asked to do for work can mean two different things?”

“Like when she was asked to draw the drapes so Amelia Bedilia drew a picture of the drapes” I asked. I was a huge fan of Amelia Bedilia!

By this time, my dad had gotten off the phone with my teacher.

“Exactly,” my father picked up from my mom. “Adam’s Apple has two meanings. It’s your school mascot and it’s something daddies have in their throats.”

As my mom wiped away the last of my tears, the terrible feeling still gnawed at my stomach. I didn’t like the feeling at all. It was a feeling I had felt before. Like when I did something I wasn’t supposed to and disappointed my parents and I felt exposed in m y shame. In that moment, I decided that what I was experiencing was a bad feeling and needed to be avoided at all costs. Every minor mistake, unintended misunderstanding became a re-enforcing message. “We must be perfect. We must avoid this feeling at all costs.”

And I did everything I could to live up to that expectation. I became a model student. I worked to know as much as I could so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by not getting an unintentional pun. I tried to remember all the rules and always obey. It didn’t help. I was cursed with human nature and messed up frequently, it seemed, and that feeling was always back, only worse.

By focusing solely on that horrible feeling that I so wanted to avoid at all costs, there were so many feelings I was excluding. Embarrassment and shame weren’t the only things I was feeling in that moment. I was excited; I was feeling like a big kid; and I was hoping my daddy would give me a quarter to buy an Adam’s Apple t-shirt. My focus on perfection in many ways locked me away in my mind. I couldn’t ask clarifying questions, because I didn’t want anyone to know that I didn’t know or understand. I denied myself the support of others because I didn’t want to show my weakness. And I couldn’t just respond in the moment with spontaneity because if I did I might make a fool of myself. RuPaul explained it this way to a contestant on Drag Race, “You are putting a judgement on your vulnerability and so when you take away that judgement, then you can just let it be.”

Almost fifty years later I am learning to be in the moment. I’m learning that censorship, even self-censorship, blocks authenticity and meaningful connection. I am growing to understand the truth of the Egyptian proverb, “A beautiful thing is never perfect.” And I am finding my power and strength in acknowledging without judgement the foibles that make me, me.

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