BlogHer changed my life. The BlogHer Community Keynote changed my life some more.
In 2005, BlogHer helped me find my voice as a writer again and a place in a community of people who were doing the same thing. In 2008, this community gave me the chance to stand on a stage at a very low personal point in front of hundreds of people and read words that I had written.
This really has always been about the story and the need to tell it, for me. The other stuff came later and even though it takes awhile sometimes and I'm easily distracted it's always circled back around to the words and what they turn into in the end, like it or not.
I did everything about writing the post I was going to enter in the wrong way, as usual. I sat down on the afternoon of the submission deadline and pounded it out with the desperation only a writer who is as truly, equally inspired by and terrified of a deadline as I am knows.
A number of weeks after I wrote and hastily submitted the post in the Letter to My Body category for the Community Keynote, I received an e-mail that I'm sure I still have somewhere saying that I had been chosen to read it at the BlogHer conference in San Francisco in July.
I managed to do it without incident, with the help of a relatively high threshold for constant anxiety and a very kind and supportive roommate. It was one of the most terrifying and important days of my life. I was certain I would not be able to do it but I did. I stood backstage with people who I knew were incredible writers, people who would be my good friends shortly thereafter, at least one person who brought out the fangirl at the time, and others who I was sure were light years ahead of me in terms of confidence and certainly popularity, whatever that means.
It didn't really matter, it turns out. It doesn't. I mean, it did matter, being backstage with those people. That was the best part of this experience, in many ways.But it didn't matter, what they were that I was not and vice versa.
I unfortunately was also not at all comfortable with my body at the time, as much as it was my face that was the focus of the letter and not the rest of me. I was at the highest weight I'd been in years. I skipped the afternoon panel in a panic to go to H&M up the street to buy a dress an hour before show time, suddenly deciding that nothing in my wardrobe was sufficient, that nothing would make me look good - which nothing really will in my eyes, when I feel like that. In the aftermath of reading, I was obsessed with obsessing about how bad I looked in the pictures. I still can't watch the video.
(That's me with Mochamomma on the left and Clair, whose link I will find and post shortly because my land I have got to post this and get out of here but I care, I really do, on the right at the MightyHaus party afterwards. I can finally post this one and not hide it on old Flickr sets. Woo! /Sarcasm.)
Hey, this is why I was in the Letter To My Body category and not humor, people.
This is the daily part of this being me business. It is never easy. But what I can say is that it turned out that getting up and reading the post I'm about to re-post below (with some pronoun edits to fix some aspects of it that have bothered me for two years.) was a very important thing to do. It is important to me to know that I can say "yes" to things that scare me to death. It is important to me to participate when I'm asked. It was an honor, really, and those don't come along every day, or sometimes even every year.
This is all to say that I am so happy to be one of the curators for the Design category of this year's 2010 Voices of the Year Community Keynote, announced today. I get to do this with Karen Walrond, who came into my life with her book and notepad and yes, of course, her camera last year as a result, she said, of hearing me read the year before. She has inspired me more than she knows, to examine my negative observations of myself and to consider how I consider myself different and whether or not I'm ready to say that that's beautiful.
She makes you work hard, that one, on important things, and I'm okay with responding honestly. And in the process she has taken my picture and become my friend.
Sometimes I can't believe how this all fits together, but when I look back over the past five years, it really has.
Anyway, this is what I stood on that stage and read:
Body: n. The entire material or physical structure of an organism, especially of a human or animal.
I keep getting stuck on this letter, with this idea of addressing my whole body. It's overwhelming - too much, I think. There are so many things I could focus on, but I keep coming back to my face. It deserves a letter. It has physical and psychic seniority over the extra 40 pounds, the wonky ankle, the aggravating stretch marks – especially so because there aren’t even any babies to attribute them too, just cheeseburgers. All of those things, as hard as they’ve been to face, along with all of the things about this form that I celebrate…well, they’re chump change compared to my face.
So my face, it gets the letter, although just writing "Dear Face" feels too awkward, so it's more of an address in its general direction, which I hope will do. It gets it because it’s worked overtime from that random genetic moment in the womb – about four weeks in, so I understand – where it didn’t fully fuse, leaving me shooting out into the world with a split lip and palate, to its daily grind since then. It, unlike any other part of this body, takes the really sharp turns. It reads the road signs and knows which line at the grocery store is better, right out of the gate. It picks the winners, or tries to. It finds the empty parking spaces and answers the tough questions. The arms and legs, they just fall in line.
There are no photos before the day at six weeks of age when I went into surgery for the first time, when my hippie plastic surgeon in the American flag t-shirt sewed my lip together. Hospitals didn’t take many if any photos of babies with facial differences then, although my mother said she wanted one. A nurse cried over her in her bed, for me, for my problems, giving birth to a rage in my mother that she told me she had trouble – at 20 years of age – understanding, much less responding to. This was still, she said, her baby, her baby's face. But in the days before digital cameras and immediate records, before blogs and communities where people could inevitably find someone to share their story, and more importantly, before differences were more acceptable, it was better to wait until I was – almost – whole to start snapping.
My face fends off strange looks when people notice the irregularities, the scar at the midline of the lip and nose, the asymmetry that little kids can see when they look up from beneath. It’s responsible for eye contact, important when you want people to see you for you, for the words you can say and the thoughts you think, and not focus on the scar tissue from a genetic fluke that really, when it comes down to it, is completely manageable. It doesn’t affect intellect, or humor, or skill of any sort. It just makes me snore pretty loud, which isn’t fun, and it also makes me whistle occasionally when I talk, which can be jarring, because I can't do it in tune.
It’s not easy being at the front of the pack when you look different from the average in this super looks-obsessed culture, according to the maddening scale that changes depending on location, time of day and who you’re talking to. Bars in college weren’t so fun. Just like fifth grade, remember? Except in fifth grade men weren’t yet coming up to me to ask for my best friend’s number, because surely it was my life’s dream to hook my girls up with unworthy partners.
My face still watches and hears people call it a cleft lip, call it a facial difference, praying they don’t call it a harelip, because that still sounds so ugly. It’s not politically correct – it’s just an old word, a word that doesn’t fit anymore, at least not for me.
My face became, anyway, a big talker, a hyper-verbal life of the party. For someone who didn’t like people looking at it much, it blabbed on and on from the time I could talk, encouraged by indulgent adults to share my thoughts, which didn’t need any help coming out in the first place. And only when a keyboard got involved did the flow of words pipe down just a bit.
As much as it - as I- talked, though, it listened, paid attention, watched for the oncoming cars, for the people who didn’t know better and for the many angels who’ve helped us along the road. It holds my head up every time I’ve turned it to the ground to avoid a straightaway glance – for the times I’ve begged silently for someone to just look me in my big brown eyes, anywhere but at my mouth. It watches people – subconsciously, I’m sure – trace their fingers over their upper lip absentmindedly while they’re talking to me, something that makes me smile now after years of self-consciousness. It likes half and half and red wine and has an unhealthy preoccupation with olives and brie.
It has trouble still sometimes, after all these years, working with
my brain to respond, to defend, to fight back or to clarify.
When a friend recently asked if I knew that Joaquin Phoenix was rumored to have a cleft lip and put the subject out there, I should have felt more solid than I did in saying that it was just a thing, a personal thing, and more power to him for making it in a looks-driven industry, guarding his decision to talk about it or not, even if he is famous.
When the girl I worked with in college asked me "why in the world I wasn’t going to have more work done” I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to make an appointment with a plastic surgeon immediately. Instead, I should have told her the truth – that I was tired of being cut into and reshaped, that anesthetic terrified me, that I needed nothing more than to relax into myself and love (or at least not hate) the face I already had.
Instead, I probably went in the back and smoked a couple of cigarettes and cried in the car on the way home. 19, you know.
When the client in graduate school – schizoaffective, no social filter, but still – walked up to me and said, “You had that THING. On your FACE,” I’m sorry. I didn’t really know what to say. Schizoaffective. No social filter. I reached out to her and calmed her because I knew she didn’t understand and was actually crying for me. But still…would everyone say it, if they didn’t know it wasn’t okay?
And when Connie said on the drive to Columbus that that young nurse who took care of her husband “had that problem” I had, so she married the first guy who asked, who turned out to be an alcoholic and wasn’t that terrible, but still? She had that problem? So she’d better marry the first guy who asked? Right?
And when the man who loved me and who I loved back, years later, told me that he wasn’t sure at first that he could date me because he had a thing for symmetry, and my face, it really didn’t fit that bill, I maybe shouldn’t have been so understanding. I maybe should have gotten up off the couch and left the room, left the apartment and the state. But I didn’t. I cared too much and knew he did too, that he was trying really hard to put truth out there and it was time to either grab hold of it or stay stuck. So I put it in the bag I kept such things in inside, and instead made it an important conversation that somehow built a tenuous bridge between him and me, and managed somehow not to hate what I looked like and what I had to offer - much.
These experiences and the thoughts and feelings they cause aren’t so much carry-on baggage at this point as they are cargo for my body, my face and me, are they?
Say it with me: harelip. And then throw it away, that terrible, ugly, made-up word, that label, just like we throw away the other stuff, the worries about the pounds and the knee and the ankle. Just like we embrace the fact that we can stretch to the sky, we can move ourselves wholesale out of an old house and into a new one. We can walk the beach for miles. We can travel across a country 8000 miles from home and tell stories, even though there this face is still a bit more shocking than it is at home, something we can tell by the way eyes linger longer, why questions are asked more pointedly there than they are here. We can use our ears to hear foreign languages and try to reach across cultures anyway. We can answer questions that aren’t whispered and try to help people understand what it’s like for a little girl to go under repeatedly, be wheeled into operating rooms with her mom and dad just beyond the big green doors, where even though the kind reconstructive surgeon played classical music and sang to her while she went to sleep, it was still a lot like dying every time.
We can put all this aside and still get out there every day and try, at least try, to look people in the eye. We can smile, even if it’s a little crooked. We can use the mouth that's still so big even though it's long since been sewn together to yell when things aren't right, to speak the truth, and more frequently than ever these days, to defend principles and other people along with our own fragile selves.
And if I can never embrace it fully, this blip on the genetic screen that caused this problem for me, for my body and my face, I can still hold people in my arms and in my heart like at one point I pushed them away with equal force. I can try not to be angry as a matter of course and try instead to be nice. I can thank the stars for every shallow person a facial scar sent away, and thank them for every minute in the deep end with good people who don't just see the surface. I can be a little better about knowing when to talk and when to shut up. I'm so strong now that if anybody says “that which doesn’t kill you…” it’s just sort of comical, and I can tell them that my face and I have had enough, that it had better be all sunshine and roses from now on.
And always, always, completely on purpose, I will wear fabulous lipstick.
If you feel that your work fits one of this year's categories, and
you are going to be at the sold-out-with-a-waitlist BlogHer in New York Fucking City in August,
please submit something. Take a chance. I promise you it will be
entirely, terrifyingly worth it. Everyone can't win, sure, but it's a guarantee that no one has a shot at hearing you if you don't speak up. This may be the year that 2008 was for you, the year that things were supposed to really start to change.
And I promise that I will be there to applaud you. I'm a good applauder, and I usually come with wine, or the beverage of your choice. True story.