Coming Back to Life
There has of late been a lot of talk about whether or not to wear a mask now that the world is opening up. I was reading a story about it in a newspaper, and while I don’t remember the specifics, I do remember that the argument went on for several paragraphs, and, like so much in the world today, was heated.
Underneath that story was a story reporting that Spanx had recently experienced an uptick in sales.
I have been turning these two stories over for several days now, along with all that’s happened in 2020 and now, 2021, and I’m wondering how much of what we are talking about begs the questions: How comfortable can we be around each other? How comfortable are we with ourselves?
I was 33 when I pulled on my first pair of Spanx. Mind you, I had no plans for this experience. I was in Nordstroms, against my will, shopping for a dress because my brother was getting married and he had asked me to be his best man. It’s not that I didn’t want to be a part of the wedding—I was thrilled—but I was a new mom. Maybe it was self-consciousness, maybe it was exhaustion, maybe it was this mysterious feeling that I wasn’t really lost, but hadn’t yet been quite found either, and I didn’t want the hassle of Nordstroms. What I mean is, I didn’t want to be a hassle. I didn’t know what kind of dress I was looking for, didn’t know what size I was. I didn’t know what color scheme my brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law had chosen. I didn’t want to stand in a dressing room, facing a mirror that I knew would illuminate more than I was ready to see.
I attempted to explain this to my husband, Jesse, who told me to not be ridiculous. He’d hired our babysitter, he told me. “We’ll get dinner after,” he said. He was turning what I thought was an errand into an event.
An event it was. No sooner had we stepped into the fancy dress section, had a woman with midnight, chin-length hair with streaks of grey approached me, and asked me what I was looking for.
“I’m just looking,” I said. I’m sure my voice was cutting. I’m sure my eyes glared a warning: Step back. I’m not what you’d call “friendly” when I’m not comfortable with myself.
Ever the wingman, Jesse explained we were here because we had a wedding to go to, and the woman clasped her hands together, and thumped her heart. I noticed her fingers were gnarled, but in a way that suggested nimbleness. They were crafty.
“I am my brother’s best man,” I told her, because I was proud and also because I felt there was a genuineness in her hands and it softened me.
The dressing room was large, with a stage-like step that faced three mirrors. The woman hung several dresses she and I picked out on our way in. “It’s fun to try on different colors and styles,” she told me. I smiled in agreement.
I loved considering myself in each dress; loved imagining giving a toast, dancing, and standing next to my brother as he said his vows. The fabric, the colors, the patterns didn’t cover up who I was, but pulled out the specialness—in the wedding, in my relationship with my brother, in me.
I decided on a simple black fitted dress with spaghetti straps. It left plenty to the imagination, while at the same time requiring necessary accessories, and here is where the day became really fun.
“Shoes, jewelry,” the saleswoman said as she smoothed the dress and walked around me checking everything out and making me feel cared for and beautiful.
“The wedding’s in June? And in Chicago?” she asked.
“You’ll need a shawl of sorts,” she said.
I winced, imagining something knitted in a church basement.
“Something delicate,” she said, smiling, “but strong enough to keep you warm.”
I was whisked away to the shoes and the jewelry. We picked out a sheer, black scarf that would be perfect for a June day in Chicago. And yes, I bought my first pair of Spanx.
There is a photo of Harper and me from the day of Geoff and Kellee’s wedding. Like the best photos are, it was unplanned. Harper and I are walking, strolling really, outside of the church. She is shoeless and in a white dress. She is holding her Bear and my hand. We are walking away from the camera.
I see that photo and I know I felt strong and beautiful. I was happy.
Sure, I was wearing Spanx, but I had also picked up running, and I’d begun writing regularly. There was a slight dream of graduate school I was beginning to entertain. I was getting to know myself.
I don’t remember where Harper and I were going. I think we were just biding time, the two of us having a quiet moment between the ceremony and the reception. I remember she didn’t need to hold my hand—that she was pretty stable on her 18-month-old feet—but I also remember she preferred I was around, and I didn’t mind. I remember the day was warm. I didn’t need the scarf. I remember it wasn’t difficult to lean slightly toward my toddler daughter as I walked in the highest pair of heels I’d ever worn.
I’ve been having a hard time writing lately. I feel like I have whiplash from all that’s happened and all that’s happening. Perhaps it sounds dramatic, but writing is my way of living in the world. I see my experiences and my feelings on the page and it’s not to contain them, but to let them breathe. To let them go—wherever they will—shoeless, in heels, on the cement, down a muddy path, with a friend, or alone.
It’s not that the words won’t come; it’s that I feel protective of them. “These are foolish,” I’ll say, or, “This is wrong.” I am putting a mask on them, when what I think they need is a pair of Spanx.
I think at times, protection is good and necessary. For example, a few years ago when I was writing what is now Twirl, I was struggling—both with my writing and in my life. I’d been sending writing to L.L. Barkat, who in so many words told me that I didn’t sound like myself. I wasn’t writing true. She told me this for months, but I declared that all I needed to do was work harder.
Then, she did the most gracious and protective thing she could’ve done: She told me I needed to take a break from writing the book.
Note that she didn’t say I couldn’t write, and in fact she gave me a job writing a column for Tweetspeak. She also asked me to write about teaching Romeo and Juliet to 8th graders.
I was devastated and refused, but this was a case of standing in a dressing room facing yourself in a mirror and seeing only one thing, and insisting that is the only true thing, when someone else is saying, “Yes, but try this dress. And how about this one, too? You’re still you, it’s simply that what you thought you would wear can’t be worn right now.”
There are so many beautiful and mysterious options. Try them on.
L.L. was protecting what needed a chance to bloom while at the same time allowing me a chance to grow.
Years ago, I sat in an American Literature class my senior year of college, twirling an engagement ring around my finger and dreaming of tulle and hoop skirts, as the professor told us, “Anything coming back to life hurts.”
It was both an invitation and a warning regarding the stories we were about to read, the stories we were about to try on, the stories we would carry with us, if we dared.
I am thinking of this now, as the world opens up and we consider whether to trust each other, and how much to protect ourselves. I am wondering about growth and coming back to life as the last of the flowers that bloomed and fell to make room for the large maple leaves now swaying overhead, slowly sink themselves back into the soil.
What stories do I need in order to trust again? What stories will bring me back to life?
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.