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Sunday, October 05, 2008

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The Kindness of Strangers

Looking in my closet yesterday morning was a lot like scrolling through 200-plus channels on tv and not finding anything to watch. Good Housekeeping magazine gave me a six thousand dollar wardrobe this spring, and I had nothing to wear.

No, I haven't changed my mind about the garments I fell in love with when I wrote my article about investment dressing. I still say if you have five hundred dollars to burn, you could do a lot worse than a Prada pencil skirt. I wear the hell out of mine.

The bones of my wardrobe are good. It's just that I don't have much to flesh them out with. I've been getting by all summer on the same few t-shirts and tunics, but now it's fall, and I doubt the Loro Piana cashmere will hold up to five days a week of peanut butter sandwich making. I really needed some new tops.

There were a lot of ironies inherent in my doing that particular story, not the least of which is that I don't like to shop very much. But I was feeling a little blue to begin with yesterday, and I told myself that a little retail therapy might not be a bad thing. I'd have loved to been whisked off to 5th Avenue where beautiful and kind shop girls would bring me frothing hot cups of cappuccino and chrome racks of couture, but this is real life, so off I went to the mall to rifle through the clearance racks.

I must have spent an hour and a half doing just that. Then a half an hour in a fitting room. Then another 30 minutes in the checkout line, where I realized it was "Bring Your Mother, BFF, and Boyfriend to Forever21 Day." Only to ring up my selections (a half dozen painstakingly matched t's and cropped sweaters to the tune of forty dollars) and realize that I had left my wallet in the car.

(insert expletive of choice here)

So much for retail therapy. My mood had gone from blue to black. No problem, the sales clerk told me. She'd bag the clothes and hold them until I got back, just come straight to the counter.

I would have just gone home and called it a day, but I had too much invested already. So I ran to the parking lot, grabbed my wallet, and ran back down to the store.

"Excuse me, " I said to the person at the front of the line, as I dashed up to the cash register and handed the clerk my debit card. The person was one of the boyfriends. He was called immediately to the next register, but he looked thoroughly pissed off all the same. As soon as he stepped up to the counter, he complained about "people breaking in line."

"I'm so sorry," I said to him. "I left my wallet in my car and had to come back."

He was not even a little bit appeased. He didn't care where I'd been, or how my morning had been going, or where my day now seemed headed. He had been waiting in line with his girlfriend and her BFF, and I came out of nowhere and took his place at the register. As far as he was concerned, that was my whole story.

I felt so terrible. I really wanted to stop him and explain that the sales clerk had told me to come directly to the register. That I was having a really bad day. In fact, kind of a bad time, and I'm not sure why, except that I feel very much apart from lately, and not much a part of, in a way that I haven't since I was about thirteen. That I'm really a good person. At least, I think I am. I try to be.

Thinking all this, and realizing how badly I needed to make this total stranger be okay with me, IN THE MALL, FOR GODSSAKE made me feel so pitiful, I can't tell you.

Like falling through a rabbit hole and landing back in grade eight, a door I can't fit, a key I can't reach, no matter how big I stretch or how small I shrink.

It's frightening to me, as a mom, to think how terrible children can be to each other. Worse to remember how hard a child can be on herself. My parents told me all my life I was beautiful and lovable, and I believed them until a few "mean girls" told me differently. Then I was angry with my parents for lying to me. Especially my father.

"You have to think about what you do, Kyran," he told me once, in the middle of one of his interminable lectures. "People will pay attention."

What I felt then went beyond anger. It was rage. How could he say that? Didn't he see that I was nobody? Who would ever care what I did or said? How would it ever matter? I stared at the carpet and hated him for being so blind to my reality.

I kept my head down a lot that year. I stared at the sidewalk as I walked to and from school, so I wouldn't have to endure the bus. I stared at my lunch box at the cafeteria table. I stared at my feet in the locker room. I stared down at the grass the day my father introduced me to an old friend of his who was in town for a folk festival.

"Jesus, Al," Brooks said, "she's beautiful."

I looked up quickly to see if he was making fun of me. His kind face was sincere. I looked back down, confused. He had to be lying, but I didn't know why.

Brooks Diamond, where ever you are, God love you for that off-the-cuff comment you probably forgot in a second. It took a long time, but it was in that second I began to believe you. I think of it every time I see a gangly thirteen-year-old hanging his or her head down, who has let ideas about "pretty" and "cool" keep them from believing in their own beauty.

I was a long way from pretty or cool. I was a gawky girl with thick glasses, big lips and bad skin. I guessed everyday at what to wear, what to say, how to act, and almost always guessed wrong. I showed up at junior high at a particularly awkward moment, and just as Boyfriend decided yesterday that my story is Rude Diva, my new classmates decided that mine was Loser, from cover to cover. All she wrote.

I don't think they were really mean girls. I think they were acting out a familiar bit of human theatre where someone has to play the Outsider, and that part fell to me and a few unlucky others. I'm willing to believe that Mean Girls was a page or two in their own story and not the whole book.

A thirteen-year-old doesn't have that perspective, doesn't understand that the opinions of others, good or bad, are just vehicles speeding by, dust on the horizon. I believed those girls had it right and my dad had it wrong. For someone to see us as we exist beyond that one difficult moment, to affirm that there is more than meets the eye, restore to us the dignity of context--well, that is the ultimate kindness of strangers, isn't it? A kindness that sometimes flows less freely between people who are cast more intimately together, where the tendency is to nail down roles, forgetting that this theatre is improv, every single day.

Brooks was my good Samaritan that day. I was in another kind of ditch yesterday. As I got back in my van, I checked my Blackberry and saw that a reader had taken time out of their own Saturday to sit down and compose a note telling me how much my article meant to them (thank you, Kim). Then in the supermarket, another very lovely someone stopped to tell me the same about my blog.

My head was far down enough that I had to fight the old urge to dismiss. Yeah, but... wouldn't think those nice things if you knew me day in, and day out, if you had to deal with my thoughts as they roll off my tongue and not arranged and considered carefully on the page or screen. If you lived with me and felt shut out sometimes when I turn inward to process something and then appear to share it with the whole world as if you didn't rank any higher than a stranger halfway across the world. You'd get fed up with hearing me whine or gush about the latest rejection or big break. You'd know that I sometimes yell at my children, that I am often not ready for a close-up, that there are no coffee mugs in our kitchen cupboard that say World's Greatest anything. You'd get tired of me. I do.

I'll never have to be thirteen again, thank God. But a little thirteen will always be in me. A while back, I caught a snippet of a Radio KSUX over the airwaves. I turned down the volume, but I guess I hadn't realized I'd left the tuner on that station. It's been on so constantly, at such a low level, I hadn't really noticed that "Not Good Enough" had become background noise.

I think plenty of people near and dear to me have been trying to interrupt that broadcast with an Important Service Announcement You Dummy. My girlfriend Lennie and my husband for starters. But sometimes it takes an unfamiliar voice to break through, to winch you out of the ditch. The kindness of strangers.



Blogger Jen K-C said...

I never thought you were a loser, I thought I was, you were the cool girl not afraid to live who was smart and witty. That is what I used to think at 13. :) It is nice to grow up. You are never alone.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Jen, where would I have been that year without you & our little crew? Thirteen was a crummy year in homeroom, but there were plenty of good times after the bell.

It's always so nice to hear from you. xo

12:23 PM  
Blogger ~amy~ said...

We all have a little 13 inside.... its just how we choose to use it in our everyday lives. I REALLY love reading your blog.... thanks.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hooray. We'll never be 13 again, nor will we be Forever21. So glad these places all have exits.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

I think we must all have events in our past that if we let them, will define who we are to ourselves.

Here's to outgrowing them.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Jennifer H said...

First, I've loved that Kasey Chambers song for years...

You always get to the heart of it, don't you?

You know those reflexology charts for hand or foot massage? (If you press Here, it affects There.) Maybe there are always going to be touch points like that...a situation that, if it touches the right place, sends a charge through us to a year or a memory.

Let's hope that not many of them lead back to thirteen...

5:50 PM  
Blogger Sheri said...

I have a 13 year old son,and the hell that is 13 is not reserved for girls. I had hoped it was, I survived it but spent years rebuilding my battered self confidence. I so badly did not want that for my son.

All those feelings come rushing back when I see him come out of school head down, feet shuffling, filled with self loathing because of something some cool kid said or did. I would give my life to make him believe that what I see is true, the smart kid, the kind heart, that is what he is, not whatever vile insults he heard at school.

Can you tell I hate 13? Thank you for sharing. Right now I needed to be reminded that we all make it through, hopefully better for the wear and tear,and my son will too.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Psst! Pass it on.

9:22 PM  
Blogger princess emmy said...

What was the video??? I can't see it.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Kasey Chambers' great song, "Pretty Enough". I wonder why you can't see it? It's a licensed YouTube clip.

9:08 AM  
Blogger RW said...

gah. 13. I have one boy and one girl. It is a war zone sometimes. We have walking wounded. We have some bright days.

I liked this post.

I appreciate your honesty.

10:42 AM  
Blogger michelle said...

I really believe that many ills of the world come about because we all still have a 13 year old inside of each of us that feels awkward and left out. Drugs, alcohol, food, shopping addictions...all to numb us from our inner-voice saying we aren't good enough. It has taken me a long time to realize that this inner voice that tries to tell us we don't fit in with 'the group' is what we all have in COMMON. Go figure...

12:58 PM  
Blogger Greta said...

Oh Kyran, how can you not know that you are beautiful? inside and out. I know that you are and you were too nice to the impatient guy in line!

3:33 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Insecurities. We all have them. My story isn't on your street - but it's in the neighborhood.

Thank goodness for the passing of time and personal revelations, but I know the feeling of a dormant battle.

6:06 PM  

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