It was a 6th grade assembly and I sat in the bleachers with my mouth hanging open as I watched a visiting jump rope squad perform a routine to Michael Jackson’s hit, Billy Jean.
“She is so cute!” Billy said pointing to the confident smiling girl in the center of the floor. The boys quickly agreed that Jill (God I even remember her name!) was the cutest and I began to feel my skin grow hot and green. It was another confirmation that what I needed most in life–to be loved–existed outside of my ordinary power. If wanted to be like the confident girl that everyone adored, some serious changes were in order.
I began to grow out my hair (the whole mullet thing was seriously cramping my style). I begged my mom for new clothes. But even as I tried to change the outside, something was still fundamentally wrong with me. I began making a list of all my physical inadequacies: bony knees, glasses, no breasts (not much has changed in all these years). I began to dread that since I couldn’t change these things that I would be doomed to live in the Land of Nerdom for all of eternity.
When my elementary school announced we would be starting our own jump rope team called the Jammin’ Jumpers I shed my usual shyness and ran to the front of the room to sign up. Every girl was allowed to come to the practices, but if we wanted to travel to other schools and perform we had to make the cut.
I practiced for hours at home every night until I could do the routine in my sleep. This was no small feat for a girl who didn’t even know how to jump rope and was called klutz by her family because she was often found splayed out on the ground with no explanation for why she just fell on her face. Try outs were one week away and I was ready.
During our final practice the girls began to gossip about who was going to make the cut and who wasn’t. Suddenly I realized the intense anxiety that filled the room as all of our eyes fell on Jenny. If I lived in the Land of Nerdom, she lived in a land somewhere beyond it–in the next solar system.
Jenny was adopted and she looked different. She was Native American with dark skin, wide chocolate eyes she looked at the world as if she had come from another planet. I saw her jump rope tangled up in her feet. Tears welling up in her eyes. I ran over to her and asked her if she wanted to practice with me after school since she lived on my street. She looked up at me and smiled.
We practiced every day up until tryouts. She told me how nervous she was. I told her to watch my feet. I promised to stand by her during tryouts. I told her I would whisper the moves so she knew what do to.
Finally the big day arrived. “Billy Jean is not my lover,” blared through the gym speakers. “Criss cross,” I whispered to Jenny. “One, two, three, four, heel toe,” I whispered.
The teachers made two initial cuts. Jenny and I stood in the center of the gym with a few other girls. The teachers asked us to perform the routine one last time. I was so relieved that I hadn’t made the cut yet so I could help Jenny. I continued to watch Jenny’s feet and whisper the moves to her. I was so proud of her. She was nailing it.
At the end of the routine the teachers said, “We could tell which of you had learned your routine, and which of you were watching other’s girl’s feet because you had not practiced enough.” Then they read the last cut. When they called Jenny’s name we both screamed and jumped up and down. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
The teachers folded up their papers, stood up and congratulated the new Jammin’ Jumpers. And I was not one of them.
“But you knew the routine!” Several of my peers gathered around me to console me. They knew that I knew the routine. They knew that I had worked with Jenny all week. But the teacher’s did not. I remember that pain of being unseen. Of having no words and no power to change the outcome of the situation. I remember the dark clouds that rolled in that day. The way I curled up under my covers and cried when I got home. I remember that feeling of exclusion, as if my exile from belonging was now publicly official.
The teacher’s were right, though. I was not looking at them and smiling. I was looking at Jenny’s feet and whispering her the moves. I was sacrificing my best so that Jenny would make the cut. Only I had no idea how much I was sacrificing.
As a woman, I find that sacrificing everything–even my success–is a very easy thing to do. I was raised in a Christian home that valued service and shunned selfishness. I looked to Jesus who gave even his life away for others. I learned how to be a spiritual doormat. The nuance I was missing was seeing clearly who I AM. Often when I let others define me I feel like I am a nobody. On the other hand, Jesus (as ego-inflated as this may sound) knew he was God (at least in some of the gospels) and it was this radical audacity that really pissed off the religious leaders. He was claiming his own power. A power that he knew was divine. I had yet to find a connection to that kind of power in my life. For so long that power remained outside of my self.
Psychologists tell us how important mirroring is in forming our early identities as children. When we have been abused or neglected that work of seeing our true essence is even more difficult. As I have grown up I have often had women confess that they hated me initially because I was tall and beautiful, which I still don’t get because when I think of “me” I think of the picture posted at the top of this article. I think of the girl who didn’t make the Jammin’ Jumpers. How blessed are we when we are surrounded by people who see our value and divine worth. (Even when we sport mullets.)
What I am finally learning as I near 40, is that belonging is not about fitting in at all. Brene Brown reminds us that actually fitting in is the ultimate barrier to belonging. Her research has shown the tolls of trying to twist ourselves into something else for others. Belonging begins with self acceptance. For me it begins by loving the nerd that I am.
I still don’t know my limits, I don’t know exactly who I am and what I am capable of. But I am testing those limits and gathering the courage to face whatever learning opportunities present themselves. I am becoming mindful of the twisting that I can do for others (this has nothing to do with yoga) in order to belong. I am learning to distance my true self from the voice that is constantly hounding me: “You’re going to get run through the ringer for that one.” “You’ll never make a living doing what you love.” “You have nothing to give.” I am learning that this voice wants to protect me from future harm. But it goes too far when it protects me from truly living.
So I am learning to live with less judgement. To accept each day as having an abundance of grace and all that I need on my path. I am meditating on the great I AM. When I meditate on I AM I cannot see myself separated from the mystery of creation. Instead I become keenly aware that the life force of the universe dwells also inside of me. Jesus called this God. It has also been called Love. A love that is stronger than death. And it’s this realization of incarnate love that allows us to make the great sacrifices in life.
I remember watching Jenny run down the hallway with all the Jammin’ Jumpers. I had never seen her body radiate so much joy. And in the midst of my own feelings of rejection, her joy touched my heart and I was able to share in her bliss. The illusion was that I had been cut off and separated from that joy–but the truth was that I had been a part of it all along.
Today, I know that I am not the outcast I thought I was. I am the fruit of creation’s ancient journey. I am made of star dust. I am a miracle. I am enough just the way I am. And so are you.
Michael Jackson was right, Billy Jean is not my lover. I am the lover I have been looking for all along. And you are yours. May you have compassion on yourself this day, and receive who you are.
Happy Valentines Day!