This post is part of a series telling a longer story. You can find yesterday’s post I Am From White Also, But Not Only here.
I asked in my group of writing friends, holy misfits in their own ways, would you please pray? Would you pray for me because I am knots and nerves and every bit that little girl who didn’t want the wrong answers to reveal she couldn’t explain herself.
I had seen the link on a friend’s Facebook page for an Authors Retreat for People of Color. I was excited that my friend, who I’ve never met in person, might be coming to Bend. She wasn’t. But still, this retreat intrigued me and with the urging of my mother, who believes in me despite all evidence to the contrary, I signed up for it.
I sent in a standard bio and a headshot and forgot about it. I didn’t know anyone who was coming but I reached out to a few friends to see if they were interested and could make it. They couldn’t.
I got the email roster of attendees and I did what anyone who is anxiety prone would do, I googled a few of them. And then that familiar voice grew up from the broken parts, like white-hot shame, you don’t belong there. I imagined circles of influence and they were the circles of my childhood. I’ve spent lifetimes staring at the backs of people’s heads as they gather pressed in and I stand on the brink and watch. A girl with strangled words wrapped round her core, learning to stay silent. Because these were leaders, these were educated passionate people changing their neighborhoods, their churches, their justice systems, and the world around them. These were people who could explain their answers.
So I went to the safest place I know, and I let the doubt and fear and insecurity tumble out. I am so bad at asking for help. I just limp along and pretend it doesn’t cripple me at times, this fear that I am not enough. Because I know all the hollow places, my lack. But I also believe stories from people of color matter. Even ordinary stories, maybe especially ordinary stories. Because we also mother or get married or hope for our dream job or face disappointments. We struggle with mental illness, and financial hardships, and doing the freaking laundry without having to reset the washer a million times because we keep forgetting to put it in the dryer. And I hate that often to find recognition as a woman of color, I always have to write about issues specific to women of color. And to find recognition with white people, I have to write about issues nonspecific to race.
I am white but I am not. Which stories do I tell? And I notice that so few women of color can just tell a story and have it matter. What do we need to prove we’re worth listening to?
My friends prayed for me and among them, a single comment.
“Listening to your “rant” was really listening to something needed and prophetic. You are in no way an imposter and your voice and eyes are needed.”
And then I did what I do. I cried off all my makeup. I didn’t know how much I needed to be told, you have a right to be here too. I’ve learned that I can’t always trust my emotions, mental illness makes them jagged and skewed and they cut right through me on the bad days. I’ve learned to look for voices that dull the edges of those sharp feelings.
So I talked myself into going. I convinced myself it would be fine. They were all writers, we’re usually messy people. We are all Christians, this isn’t middle school all over again.
But when I went to leave I realized my mom accidentally took my keys and I was left stranded knowing that by the time I made it there, everyone would already have met and been together and I would walk in late and alone. On the outside.
It would be another circle to stand at the margins of and hope there was room for me.
But I’ve been taken out on so many days. I’ve had my choices removed because there are days when I simply cannot. Days when the agony seems to win and I’m crushed back to earth and my thoughts spiral and all I can do is pray for mercy, pray for rescue. But this was a good day. This was me able, but not wanting to because of fear.
I went back and read the comments. I whispered the prayers and fought back the anxiety.
And when we gathered in a circle, I stuffed myself into the corner of a couch and silently swore that I had gone as introductions were made and each person spoke and I shrunk down smaller and smaller. Having thumbed through the retreat program on arrival and seeing everyone’s colorful bios with degrees and accolades, all professional and glossy, I realized that I had literally written something about making my home in Central Oregon with chickens and a bunny and something about homeschooling kids and making googly-eyes at my husband. That last part didn’t make it into the program and I can only think it was a kind soul who edited it out or God who allowed that part to be accidentally cut. You guys, I cannot make this stuff up.
When it got to me, I literally said I basically write my feelings on the internet and then I babbled. I have no idea what I said. None. Everyone was kind and generous. It almost made it worse.
I went home and my husband asked me how it went. I told him I died of humiliation, have no place there, and will never send a bio anywhere ever again.
I don’t belong, I whispered.
I have nothing to say, these people are doing the real work. I must have been hallucinating to believe my story matters. I am an undereducated biracial high school drop out, financially insecure, overweight, struggling with mental illness. I am a woman with no resume, no qualifications.
Some days I cannot even get out of bed or run a brush through my hair. I write my feelings on the internet, for God’s sake! And my hollow places, my weakness felt like the deepest sorrow, like a widening gap that would swallow me whole.
He asked me if I was going back the next day. If there were any way I could’ve not gone back and never had to see a single person again, I would have. But this retreat was put on by my old church. People would ask how it went. I would have to make up a reason why I couldn’t attend the rest.
I said yes and then imagined up fake emergencies that would suddenly call me home if I felt like I was going to die on the spot.
I didn’t want to fail again. This time I would keep quiet.
This is a four part series on my blog. I’m telling a longer story but instead of hurling 5,000 words at you, I’m going to spread them out in this series. I’m going somewhere with all of this. I’d love it if you’d join me as I tell this story, my story.