I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence-slate was completely wiped cleaned. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers, etc. etc. etc. We’ve all suffered something.
What happened to my confidence was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from expressing my own heart. I knew my heart, but I could not speak it without experiencing ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. As a result, I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.
I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods. I could trust myself.
I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? I wondered. Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? In the end, it was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that kept me stayed put.
I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism.
“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.
So it was criticism.
I talk now. I’m 64 years old and I’m a novelist and I can carry on a conversation with a stranger and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. Becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.
So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods. I see that young girl trying to please everyone by not existing, and not speaking her heart, and I feel sympathy for her and I also feel a smidge of pride, because I know that while she did not speak her heart, she did hold onto it.