This is going to be another one of those two-sides-of-the-same-coin kinds of entries.
First, I’d like to just share the daily giggle I have whenever I have to sign something, or put my initials on something or otherwise make a physical re-creation of my new USDA-certified name. It always makes me smile, both for the “yay I’m married” reasons and the “tee hee, new name” reasons.
For this little blog I still show up as KJ. I’ve been KJ all my life up until now and most strikingly those two letters have come to represent the “whole new me” version of me since roughly my 18th birthday and my arrival in Iowa for college. I grew quite fond of KJ. It’s got a poetic ring to it, strong and quirky with a kind of zeal that conveys more than just a weak commentary on my place in the alphabet.
Those two letters are right next to each other on the keyboard. Ka-Blam! KJ. Right there. One hand. Two fingers. Yeah! Ka-Pow! KJ. Take that, world! It rhymes, it works as a zazzy little knickname in the office, and it just flows off the tongue in such a way as to make it nigh impossible to say when pissed off (or at least say it and sound angry).
And now, my new last name has changed all that. I am now no longer zazzy. Now my initials have all the zing and poetry of socks. I was never the type to sit there for hours, dreaming about how I’d sign my new last name in every variation and I still am not. I have to look twice at my checks and credit card receipts to make sure the right name goes on each one. I still struggle with the new name, even though it’s shorter, because my hand doesn’t know the dance yet. Part of me will always be KJ, and I am quite fond of the idea of using it as a pen name. Yet – I did change my name when I got married, after all. The new name is mine. I must commit to it. I must continue this new tarzan-in-trousers phase until the thing finally becomes second nature. Until it finally becomes me. It will, too, but it’ll take a while.
That brings me to my next kvetch.
“Just be yourself”. Um. Ack. In light of what I’ve just written, that little statement is just insulting and absurd. “Just be yourself”
I heard that so much in school. Often alongside “what’s in a name?” and “sticks and stones blah blah blah.” What a horrible thing to tell a child, “just be yourself”. Childhood is all about having to conform to unreasonable rules, and chiseling a polished new adult from the earthy and feral explosions of youth. It’s about fear, loathing, misrepresentation and the ultimate shattering of poorly drawn dreams.
A small, shy, misfit child who is trying desperately to fit in REALLY IS just being herself. Her “herself” is someone who wants to be smart like everyone else, wants to be funny, wants to be adored, wants to be popular and wants to get noticed by boys just like all the other girls. Her “herself” is a blank slate upon which is waiting to be written the story of her life but as yet contains the instructions “do what you are told, be a good girl, don’t rock the boat”. She is crushed easily both emotionally and physically, but mostly emotionally. She cries a lot when the anger and frustration get to be too much and she learns quickly that being mean makes it all so much easier to take. She’s plenty smart already, and creative, and sortof cute in an under-cooked waffle kind of way… but she doesn’t test well in class and she’s very day-dreamy. Her attentions are fare more easily persuaded by dust-motes in the sunlight than by what’s actually being written on the chalkboard.
How dare we tell this child to “just be herself”? She is weird. She is ostracized. She’s either too poor, too rich, the wrong religion, badly dressed, or a bad runner. That IS her “herself”. Why on earth would anyone WANT to be that?
It took me years of chiseling away at my own personality before I realized that every ugly part grew right back. The crazy, the weak, the nauseatingly dreamy… it all grew right back as if it had never left. Every time I sliced off a big hunk of “socially inept” it’d slither right back into place just in time for the cute boy to walk by. In the year of my eighteenth birthday, I decided to stop cutting, and start building from scratch. Soon I’d have constructed for myself a weak, if passable, version of myself that was graceful, witty and kind. The quirks and the crazy would still come through but they were otherwise obscured – stitched over and ironed back behind layers of clever patois and daring charm. My new “myself” wasn’t me at all, and only a few people noticed. My previous me was a clumsy idiot, and to make it worse nobody missed her. My new me was a hit, a fantastic thrillride of dancing, flirting, positive body image and great hair.
Over time, the façade has rooted more deeply back into my original me. I still feel like a fraud every day except for those rare moments when I catch someone else mending a seam in her own new personality. And I do see it. Every time. You don’t get a great new “myself” like mine without being able to notice things like that, without being able to learn from what other people hope the rest of us can’t see.
Children like me saw everything, see everything. Those of us who make it through the bullying, and who swim away from our own demons quickly enough become chameleons of adults who end up doing pretty well. Most people never notice, and our old personalities are almost never missed.
My advice to anyone stuck in those early years of childhood, anyone mired down by a “myself” that’s just not right, is that if you pay very close attention you can construct a new “myself” for yourself. You can stitch into it for years and the time will make it stronger and far more convincing. Before long, you will even be convinced. You will still be you, but you will be a new you, and you will have had to work for this you like nobody else has. THAT is when you can “just be yourself” because finally you’ll know exactly who that is in every detail.
And by then when the seams rip they’ll be far easier to repair, and they won't hurt nearly so much.