Same Kind of Different: A Love No Line Could Divide

By Kindergarten, I knew I wasn’t like all the other little girls.

For starters, in preschool I’d chosen the name Joplin for my favorite stuffed animal. Yes, like Janis. Apparently because the individual who looked after me was a huge fan … and I was a fan of hers. Things only got more interesting from there. Around the same time, I also began to idolize Michael Jackson, in all his many manifestations, and Maria von Trapp, specifically as depicted by Julie Andrews in 1965’s film, The Sound of Music.

Ask my parents and they’ll tell you that I gave rousing performances as each persona, trying desperately to make sense of a world that allowed more room for one than the others along the spectrum of social acceptability.

Ask me now, as an adult, and I will tell you how much it saddens me that so much change is still needed. For too long, we’ve prioritized party politics and pop culture over actual people — their actual lives; their actual loves; their many successes, celebrations, and failures.

This is a social norm I hope we learn to explore with honest continuity — rather than, say, pretending to confront it every few years, before conveniently forgetting about it until someone else (and there will always be someone else!) demands that we don’t. How much stagnates between election cycles! How much we age! How little gets changed! This has always troubled me.

But back to the relative innocence of childhood.

As a young girl, I also loved playing with Barbies and other dolls. I imagined their date nights and home-making adventures with as much gusto as their many successful careers. This became even more fun as my sisters came along, although we often fought about who got to be which princess or occupy which room in the doll house we eventually acquired. You know, what siblings do. The difference is, we processed those behaviors beyond rules about sharing.

No eye-rolling, please. That detail is critically important.

After all, to be a child is to play, but to play is to prepare for life ahead. Most of us just aren’t trained to see it that way from the beginning. By some bizarre happenstance, we were. And in this, borrowing from the literary giant that is Flannery O’Connor, we were (and I was) “made odd” from the very beginning.

***

Come to think of it, playing with dolls was about the extent of my “normative” girlish childhood. Dolls weren’t really what got my heart pounding anyway. No, that took sets of other kinds — more specifically, trains and cars. Anything that evoked movement.

The idea that nothing had to stay the way it was, where its was, forever? That was what I wanted. And so my parents, to the best of their ability, learned to provide.

Thank God they did.

My parents’ decision to indulge these peculiarities probably saved my life in more ways than one. You see, whether or not they intended it, my childhood taught me a valuable lesson: not only is movement possible, but actually, with careful maneuvering, it can take place at great speed and to great effect.

As a result, any time I’ve needed to live through or make great changes, I’ve felt equipped — or more terrifyingly, destined — to handle them. Just don’t let the romance of that idea lull you into believing that my life’s been easy. Because it hasn’t, not even at the start.

You see, growing up down South, in a culture that prized stasis and tradition over almost everything else, I was made to feel like an outsider from the minute I consciously set foot in the systems that, ironically, were meant to help me grow. And that — there’s just no other way to say it — really sucked.

***

Let’s be clear: in any culture, one is only ever meant to take up as much space as they’ve been pre-allotted. Anything beyond that line is a threat to society — or, as some say, “the system” — and must therefore be snuffed out, hushed up, or otherwise encouraged to “fit in.”

This is not news to anyone watching the news, or who’s made even a beginner’s study of history or life in general. What might be less apparent is that these struggles are not uniquely Southern. As such, the solutions that we work towards must come from within and outside the South. Not a popular truth, but a truth nonetheless.

That said, I grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line, so that is where my story must be rooted. Mine is the story of an odd little girl who grew up in a culture that didn’t exactly welcome odd little girls.

“Ok,” you might be wondering, “then what, exactly, are odd little girls supposed to do?”

The answer is that they must grow up. And they grow up a lot faster than some of their peers. Why? Because they have no other choice. Society allows nothing else. To be quite frank, choosing to preserve their individuality comes at a steep price: “otherization,” or the process by which one is made an outsider.

That happens at such a young age?,” some of you are wondering. “How?

Simple. By bringing one’s odd brand of existence to one’s routine attention, usually in the hopes of “helping” one conform. And so it went that, sometimes by peers who didn’t know better, sometimes by peers who did, and worst of all, sometimes by adults who had absolutely no excuse for their transgressive behavior, this happened to me. Routinely.

I’m not in the business of holding grudges, so I’ve long forgiven each person. But I feel that readers should know: with each “helpful suggestion,” I was made to feel like some part of me wasn’t acceptable, couldn’t be allowed to continue, wasn’t something that anyone would want. I began to question every part of myself as I searched for a reason — any reason — to be enough, just as I was. And the longer that struggle went on, the harder those reasons became to find.

Which part of me, exactly, was unworthy? I honestly could not understand. Being a “Type A” extrovert in my natural state, not knowing quickly became more hurtful than the transgressions themselves. You can imagine the myriad ways this affected my life, but what ultimately matters is that in the end, my spirit won out over the closed-minded, elitist, suffocating culture that tried to tamp it down. And I’m proud to say that I’m largely the same person today that I was then. Just older and braver.

***

Thankfully, I’ve never had to do life alone. To this day I am surrounded by oddballs — some of whom I’m honored to call lifelong friends. In this way I have been profoundly blessed. But I’d be lying if I said that a pack of amazing friends was enough. It never would be. How could it? Especially because women are socialized to prepare for and pursue romantic relationships from sinfully young ages …

Now, I can already feel some folks wondering, but yes. When the appropriate age came, I went on to have crushes upon crushes upon crushes. All of them male, all of them hopelessly gorgeous, all of them absolutely not interested in me. It would be a long time before the opposite sex realized this oddball had something to offer. And so the understanding of my young girlhood proved correct.

In fairness, asking pubescent males to make a choice like me was asking a lot. Not because of me — at least not completely — but because that’s just how growing up works. I was exactly the opposite of everything they chased, for crying out loud. And you don’t even have to get to the part that includes Michael Jackson and Maria von Trapp to know that. It’s actually much, much simpler.

I had what I’d been told was a masculine name. I had a voice — and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I preferred running down garden paths and library halls to conspicuously chasing male attention. And I was definitely not interested in being owned, something I understood to be inherent in the entire business of coupling.

Exactly none of that screamed pick me. But this isn’t a sob story. It’s more of a slow-burning, coming-to-love piece. The kind where the heroine gets to save herself first. The kind where, no matter the love interest, the location, or the changes that get thrown her way, she makes herself whole. The kind where her whole humanity eventually recognizes the whole humanity of another, and together they form the most unique of couples: two wholly in love partners.

I don’t know who’s been keeping track, but those kinds of love stories rarely begin with, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who had as many suitors as she ever wanted or needed, and probably a few more after that …”

Long story short, in the time I spent waiting for someone to love me for who I was, I learned that I could be that person for myself. And from that place, I grew into my power. I loved my non-traditional beauty. I loved my wild spirit. I loved my freedom. And eventually, whether or not others loved it, I loved myself enough for ten lifetimes’ worth of lovers. It just broke my heart to do it.

***

Getting to that place was really important, because it’s where my story — or at least, the part that’s worth telling — really begins. See, the interesting thing about being an outsider is that once you learn to accept yourself, all of a sudden you have this immense capacity to spot and address other forms of outsiderhood. Eventually, what bothers the hearts and minds of these souls — however different they may be — begins to really bother you. And from that place, with the right set of social supports, together you can do amazing things.

I’ve yet to do something truly noteworthy, but I also firmly believe in encouraging others to own their journeys towards whatever greatness they achieve, and that’s what this essay is about.

Have there been struggles on my journey, both independently and on the path to love? Yes. But have there also been beautiful moments of change and growth? Absolutely. These moments are just complicated by a certain push-pull towards acceptance that only outsiders fully understand.

The issue with being a recovering outsider (always oddball) is that for every inch of inclusion you earn for yourself, you are less likely to want to compromise your place. Think about it.

To this day, my deepest desire is for community, connection, and inclusion. It is my most selfish collection of wants. But balancing these out? An irrepressible, unceasing call to make the world more inclusive for others.

As both an oddball and a human, it’s my responsibility to extend my hand back out to those still struggling to reach the step I’m on, the place I’m in, so that together we might do more than climb every *BLEEPING* day of our lives.

Lofty? Yes. Necessary? You bet.

This isn’t to say I will succeed, or that my attempts have been anywhere near sufficient, but simply that I cannot survive without trying. Even though I frequently tire from my efforts to balance what can feel like two opposing identities, I know that deep down, I am here to move through this struggle, and that this struggle is my purpose.

I also can’t go any further without owning that I didn’t have the words to accurately name my calling until very recently. I had only a dreadful, increasingly generalized feeling of fear. Fear of myself. Fear of having to answer my call alone. Fear of others. Fear of the world into which we are born and by which we are handed a frightening imperative: live.

That kind of fear.

Still, in the face of that fear, I began setting the stage for what would ultimately become my raison d’être: supporting norm-shattering, movement-based progress, starting with accepting my odd little self, and hoping that someone, someday would have the strength to join me in laboring forward together.

But wait! That’s just love! And isn’t love what we all want?

You’re right. In wanting love, I was exactly like all the other little girls, and like every human who enters this mess of earthbound activity we call life. Because no matter our identities or preferences, with the critical distinction that they are non-violent, is love not what it means to live?

Little me could have told us that. I’d venture to guess that most little others could, too. The trouble is, somewhere after playing dress up, we’re taught to forget. It happens in loads of insidious ways. Noticing these ways is what’s made me odd. And while for the longest time I didn’t think my “brand of odd” had a match, as luck would have it, it did.

***

Rewind to childhood.

While I was busy playing my way through some of society’s harshest divisions, the man who would become my husband was roughly 600 miles away taking verbal blows in the schoolyard for being precisely the kind of person I was afraid didn’t exist.

Like me, his early childhood years were largely happy ones, though getting older taught him many hard lessons about individuality and standing up for what is right and good. Already, he was preparing himself to be set apart, to live in a future that many of our peers weren’t ready to see or accept: that only the different become truly great.

When I hear him recount stories from his youth, I am reminded how very similar we’ve been from the start. Refined by the process of refusing to unquestioningly assimilate into a culture that isn’t always accepting, we’ve been individually toughened and collectively softened to the needs of those around us. This shared set of experiences and worldview is a large part of what makes our relationship successful, more than a decade later.

Of course, we’re also very different. I am an extrovert of a native Southerner, thanks to parents who made the auspicious choice to relocate there in the years before my birth. And he, an introverted, native New Yorker, has more generational, geographic, and philosophical ties to the surrounding area than I ever thought possible.

I generally dislike reductivist takes, but suffice it to say that most people are genuinely shocked that we work. Hell, some days we’re pretty shocked, too. After all, ours is a story of making it despite the odds (and, let’s be serious, also ourselves). Curious about what that means? Keep reading.

Deep in the aughts, a college mixer brought us together. But what kept us together? Being of shared, singular mind. Which is to say, by the time we’d arrived at college, we both knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were there for one reason and one reason only: to prepare for law school.

Everything we did was in service of that goal. The rest — including our relationship — was lovely, semi-permanent filler. Why? Because folks with ambitions like ours simply can’t afford to get distracted by anything or anyone. Not even someone with the same un-distractable plans.

And boy, did we have plans …

After graduation, he would enroll in whatever Ivy League school accepted him, before beginning his career in New York. And I would probably land somewhere like the University of Virginia before doing what all Good Southern Girls do … get married and pretend to have a career until I got pregnant (Kidding! Of course I would keep working after babies!). The world’s opportunities would only open up from there.

As far as we were concerned, that all would’ve been more than deserved.

It’s just that life had been making plans, too …

Those who know us know that our lives didn’t turn out that way. At the end of the day, it was me who gained acceptance to an Ivy League program — though it was for a degree in education rather than law, and though I ultimately chose to go elsewhere. And while my husband did eventually become a Manhattan attorney, this was only after attending law school in my hometown, discovering his passion for pursuing justice in financial markets, and becoming the quiet hero he is today.

That’s right, neither of us ended up where we thought we would — up to and including ending up together. Still, this spring — a writer and a lawyer, a New Yorker and a North Carolinian — we celebrated six blissful years of marriage. All because we met, sure … but perhaps more pointedly, because we finally realized the key to our shared happiness.

We’re the same kind of different.

And you don’t just go throwing that kind of love away.

Even if it spoils all your plans.

Even if you stop making plans at all.

That actually sounds pretty good to me.

To the next six(ty), love.

September 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

I dislike some folks’ comparisons to Fitzgerald for this month’s read. Not because there aren’t parallels, not because I believe we shouldn’t let books — and people — be in conversation with each other, but because I generally take issue with assigning “debut” novelists “a great” to whom they seem to harken back, as if lending legitimacy to their work is somehow necessary. Especially given the lessons and themes of these novels. Keep reading if you’re curious as to why.

Writers are writers. Their voices are their voices. Their stories are their stories. And that should be enough. That said, if you’ve read The Great Gatsby, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on whether this literary parallel holds value. So many have made it. And if you haven’t read that American classic, I suggest you carve out time to do so. After all, September 2020’s author inscription mentions the “green light,” and in a world where we all need a beacon of hope to some degree or other, I’ll invite you to imagine what significance it might have — both now and in the future.

But first, here is your task, should you choose to accept it:

Please join me in reading one of my very favorite pieces of modern American literature, Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us, which was published in 2017 by Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. If you finish early, read or re-read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For several reasons, considering these books side-by-side may prove a worthy exercise — just not for the reasons I take issue with above.

I love each and every one of you. And I’ll see you back here the week we welcome fall.