About a month ago, I got an email from Liz, the manager at Quimby’s Bookstore. She asked me if I wanted to read at an event the store was hosting, called “3 Songs,” where the Blue Ribbon Glee Club sings three songs, and three different writers read something either directly or tangentially related to one of those songs.
My initial response to this was, “Oh no I can’t do that. I’ve never done that, I’ve never read anything I’ve written out loud in front of people.” Well, not since high school and that wasn’t a particularly positive experience. But then I remembered that a few months ago I played onstage in a band, something else I never thought I’d do, and I survived. So maybe it was time to stop being afraid of this.
So I said yes. I chose the song “Dress” by PJ Harvey from the Blue Ribbon Glee Club’s repertoire. I figured I could write something around that song in a month’s time, despite not having been writing much at all lately. Writing something with the express intent of reading it out loud makes for a different writing experience. I’m a pretty conversational writer anyway, but I found myself reading sentences out loud as I worked, seeing how they sounded in the real world instead of just inside my head.
What I ended up writing was very personal, and I was worried I might not be able to get through it without crying or being choked up, and I didn’t want that to happen. But I spent enough time working on it, and I practiced reading it many times over at home, so I was pretty confident I could get through it calmly. If my nerves didn’t completely overtake me, anyway.
I took the day off work, for two reasons: One, we we’ve been super-busy lately and if I tried to just “leave early” to get to the reading it would’ve been impossible. And two, I also knew I’d be a nervous wreck and not really worth much at the office. So I took a vacation day. I practiced reading my piece, making some last minute edits, and trying to calm my nervous stomach.
I arrived at the store a few minutes early. There’s no rehearsal or run-through, you just show up and do it punk as fuck. A few friends came to show their support, for which I was extremely grateful. The store was pretty crowded, but I was feeling reasonably good about things. My biggest worry was my voice. When I’m nervous or stressed, my voice gets really ragged in my throat. I’d bought a cup of tea with honey at Starbucks and sipped at it, hoping it would keep my voice from getting too unpleasant.
First, the Glee Club sang “Glad Girls” by Guided by Voices, and then Mark Lazar read a really poignant and entertaining piece about being a nerd in high school, and I was amazed at some of the similarity in themes in both of our pieces.
Next, the Glee Club sang “Dress” and then it was my turn to read. I was afraid I would stumble over my words, or lose my place on the paper, or read super-fast out of nervousness. But none of that happened. I felt like, “This is okay. I’m doing okay.” And it was over, and people applauded, and I sat back down. I survived.
Then the Glee Club sang “Words and Guitar” by Sleater-Kinney and Jonas read about his relationship with that song, which was really funny. The Glee Club sang two more songs after that, and that was it.
Afterwards, a few people told me they thought my piece was really good, amazing, they loved it, which thrilled me to no end. I successfully did a thing that in previous years I would’ve gone to many lengths to avoid. I was over the moon.
And then I had to go back to work the next day like nothing happened. Sigh.
This is what I read at Quimby’s:
This year, I turned 50 years old. A desire to make this year somehow “special” and also escape from the nightmare we’re currently living in means I’ve been going out more often than is normal for me. Not that I’m trolling bars every night seeking to reclaim my youth. My youth wasn’t like that in the first place. But I’ve been feeling an overwhelming “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” kind of vibe these days. So if there’s a band in town I want to go see, the odds are good that I’m going to go. If someone calls (Wait, calls? Who calls anymore?) If someone texts me and says “hey do you want to meet for a drink/dinner/whatever?” I’m probably going to go. Whereas before, I was more inclined to just stay home.
And going out at age 50 is very different from going out at age 25. At 25, my self-esteem account was overdrawn. I had less than none. I’ve always had some version of this body. Sometimes it’s bigger, sometimes it’s smaller, but I was extremely aware that I was not going to get anywhere in this world based on my looks. I was ridiculously shy and awkward and always felt like I was probably the least interesting person in the room. I relied on humor and withering sarcasm to get through the day, but those were rarely successful strategies for superficial socializing with strangers in the mating dance of youth. That was deer-in-the-headlights time.
And before I could even steel myself to get out the door, I had to answer the eternal question: WHAT DO I WEAR? There was a constant negotiation between wanting to be cute and fashionable and. . . this body. My best friend could wear any damn thing she wanted to and look smoking hot, and she knew it. I loved her like my sister but I felt like Humpty Dumpty when we went out together. She had the body (and the confidence) to walk into a bar wearing a catsuit and heels, and I was probably wearing a plaid skirt and a cardigan and Doc Martens, going for some version of quirky-cute because that’s the best I could hope for. 1992 in Chicago was actually not a bad time to express your unique style. Thrift-store dresses, shaggy haircuts and clunky shoes were the height of hipster fashion. But even if I could pass for cool in the right bars, I certainly did not feel that way. I was the sitcom fat best friend who provided sass and wingman services. I was terrible at flirting, I absolutely did NOT know how to do it. If I was standing by the stage at Lounge Ax, waiting for the band, and someone tried to chat me up I either didn’t understand that’s what was happening, or I was immediately suspicious. I was such a mental mess that the idea that someone would be attracted to me really did not compute. I assumed that I would end up being the victim of some guy who would pretend to like me for the amusement of his asshole friends and then I would be destroyed by humiliation when the truth was revealed. I know it sounds absurd in retrospect, but this was a serious concern of mine. And in my defense I was still recovering from some harassment in high school that really did a number on my head.
(Side note: sometimes I look back at my life and think how different it might have been if anyone in the 1980s had defined what “sexual harassment” was, or if anyone had given a damn about bullying back then. Instead, like so many others, I got the worst possible advice: “just ignore them and they’ll stop.” Yes. Just be a quiet good little girl and don’t make noise. Fuck that. Scream your bloody fucking head off.)
Regardless of whatever clothes I was wearing at age 25, I was also wearing military-grade psychological armor because I was convinced I was in for another round of the bullshit from high school. No wonder I had so few dates. This, despite the fact that two of my closest friends at the time were great guys who rarely acted like jerks, so I should’ve had more reason to trust the occasional man.
Oh, there was this one time that a guy flirted with me and I guess I was able to sort of halfway competently flirt in return, so we had a few dates, but then we went to a party together and he left with someone else, so yeah. My two guy friends were also at this party and I left with them. I’m still friends with one of those guys.
Now I’m 50 and when I go out, I am relieved of the burden of youth, and the presumed burden of seeking love, or a hookup or whatever the kids are calling it now. I look around and see all the 25-year-olds still doing the thing they do, drinking and dancing and flirting, and I feel a very complex mix of emotions – like I’m visiting a civilization I’m not a part of anymore, with a sense of relief that I no longer have to participate in it, but also a tiny bit of nostalgia and regret. If I had the wisdom of 50 in my 25-year-old brain would it have made a difference? Would I have been able to make different choices, or at least feel better about the choices I made? I do know when I go out now, I don’t spend much time fretting about what to wear. I no longer have time for standing around in shoes that make my feet hurt. Did I remember to put lipstick on? Maybe. I’m not there to be seen by anyone except my other middle-aged friends, and presumably they like me for other reasons than my fashion sense or my cleavage. It’s remarkably freeing.
Obviously, I could’ve had this freedom at 25, or at 18, or whenever I wanted it. It was always available to me, but I just couldn’t access it. When I was young I admired the women who already seemed to have that freedom, but I also felt jealousy and resentment. If I saw a woman who my absurd judgmental brain assessed as somehow “less attractive” than me, or fatter than me, yet she had the audacity to wear something I wouldn’t even consider OUT IN PUBLIC, I just didn’t know what to do with that. How could she do that and I couldn’t? Wasn’t she afraid that people would make fun of her? Maybe they did. Maybe it was a monumental experience for her to leave the house in that dress. Maybe her day wasn’t easy. Or, maybe her sheer self-confidence just shut everyone down and she strutted through the day like the Queen she was. She had some secret knowledge, and I was clueless.
When I was 25 in 1992, what was all around me? Riot Grrl. I loved the music, I read the zines, I admired these women and their fearlessness. I loved them shoving their anger in everyone’s faces and saying “fuck you and fuck this fucked up system.” It was right there, ready for me to jump in. But I still couldn’t make that leap inside my own head. No, I can’t do that, not me. I’m not brave enough. Not cool enough.
So instead of becoming a Riot Grrl I just kept getting older. When I was 30, I put a few purple streaks in my hair, just on a lark, at the hairdresser. I had long hair then, and the streaks were subtle. It’s not something one usually STARTS doing at 30. (I’d been coloring my hair for years, but never anything outside of normal human shades). It was kind of groundbreaking for me, and I loved it, so I kept doing it. The streaks changed color, changed location, took up more space on my head. Then I cut my hair short, and stopped doing the streaks for a little while, but I got bored and I wanted them back. I wanted more. Streaks weren’t enough. I needed bright chunks, big sections. Multiple colors. I don’t know if everyone with brightly colored hair experiences this, but I get so many compliments. I had a woman yell out her car window at me as she drove down the street, “I love your hair!” Which is a far cry from what I was used to hearing yelled out car windows at me when I was younger. I’ve had women tell me they wish they were brave enough to dye their hair and I always tell them, “DO IT. It will change your life.” But I know not everyone has the luxury. Not every workplace is so tolerant. Not everyone’s family is so tolerant. Now it was my turn to be the woman that someone else wished they could be like, that I was somehow “brave” for walking down the street looking this way, and that was revelatory to me.
So now I’m 50. I still have this same body, which is currently larger now than it was when I was 25, and yet I hate it a lot less than I did then. Back then, I saw It as the source of all my problems, and surely if I could just get down to the right dress size everything else would fall into place. It took way longer than it should have for me to understand that a skinnier version of me would still have the same brain rattling around inside my head and that was 3 pounds I could never lose.
I still live with huge amounts of anxiety – about work, about money, about the demons systematically destroying our country, and what the hell happened at the end of Twin Peaks? Really?
But I feel much less anxiety about myself than I used to. I’m still awkward when I meet people for the first time. I still feel like puking when I have a job interview. Small talk still feels like slow death. But gradually I stopped feeling like I had to apologize for taking up space in the world, and stopped caring so much about the opinions of others — whether I actually knew those opinions or my brain assumed what those opinions were. I’m just me and you can like it or not.
I wasn’t ready for Riot Grrl but maybe it’s time for Riot Crone.