“I need a machete to fight my way through your sentence structure,” my editor said over the phone. I was already crying and struggling to keep my tears silent. I didn't want him to hear me as he continued to rip into my article. Murmuring my consent, I listened to him explain how much of the story he was gutting. I made it through the call before falling apart. My rational side knew that much of the problem had to do with the content of the article. I had taken a risk interviewing a group of LGBTQ teens trying to organize housing for runaways in our conservative community. Many of the teens had been kicked out of their homes by their families. For a local paper which mainly ran stories on chili cook-offs, this was not a popular topic.
My editor, who was known for leaving a trail of dirty tissues around the office and for priding himself in pissing off every member of city council, cut out all the quotes by a transgender kid in the name of grammar. Still, my emotional self held on to the insults. I worried that every word he uttered was true. My doubts and demons feed on the harsh words and became bloated on the sickening sense that I'd finally been found out as a total failure.
Recently, a friend sent me a story about a teacher's lesson on bullying. She had her students crumple up and stomp on a piece of paper. They were allowed to do anything but rip it. Then, she asked them to smooth it back out. She pointed out that the paper could be restored but the creases stayed forever. Those creases represented the scars of bullying – the words and actions that can never be taken back.
Her lesson reminded me of how many scars I continue to care around with me. Despite all the kind words and praise I have received, the negative experiences seem to shout much louder in my head. Sometimes I take out that paper of my soul and spend too many hours running my fingers over those deep lines. I believe those insults more than I believe the praise. I keep them around because when things don't go right I can return to them and claim that I knew I'd fail. I've discovered that we find a strange sense of comfort in reliving old wounds. They keep us stuck and sometimes stuck means safe.
I have received exactly sixty-five rejections for my first novel. I keep them listed in a neat little spreadsheet. Even though some of the letters came back with compliments and encouragement, I still feel the sting. And each time, I picture my old editor with his bushy mustache and soup-stained tie fighting his way through my tangled sentences with his machete and dropping his tissues in a trail like a perverse version of Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest of my ineffectual prose.
Every rejection feels the same. I feel that burning at the back of my neck like I might throw-up. And it's like the first boy who told me we should just be friends out on the blacktop at recess, the girls who put their lunch boxes on the cafeteria benches so I couldn't sit down, the F in red ink on my spelling test, the words “I want a girl to spend my life with and you're just not her,” the music teacher who mocked me for getting too nervous to sing the right notes, the nasty comment from a stranger, and the job interviewer who doesn't even pretend to be interested all over again. I go right back to tracing those crease, wearing them deeper into my psyche.
This month, I read two books about how all our bad experiences are recorded in our very cells. I believe it. I can feel them lurking there among my DNA ready to replay if I let them. Both Dr. Joe Dispenza's Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself and Alexander Loyd's The Healing Code recommended meditation techniques to release those old fight or flight responses that no longer serve us. In fact, everywhere I look articles are telling me to meditate in order to get in touch with a spiritual source and to reprogram my brain to release its limited view of reality. If it is so wonderful, why am I so resistant to sitting in silence for a few minutes a day?
The answer is fear. I am afraid of what I will do or become if I let go of these insults, rejections, and disappointments. They anchor me to a version of myself I am used to. Without them, I might float up and away. What if I get lost in infinite possibility? I wear these scars like a piecemeal suit of armor to protect me and ground me in limitation. If I keep repeating them to myself, I won't be surprised by those slings and arrows. So, I wrap myself tight in my crumpled-paper soul.
Yet, I can't stop wanting. I keep writing not because I think I am good at it but because if I don't write every few days my brain gets too crowded. I have to pour out a few thoughts, dreams, and scenes just to make room for myself up here. And I keep seeking out connections because I love people. I am so curious about what goes on in everyone else's heads. Despite a history of being bullied, feeling stupid, having my heart broken, and not being able to sit with the cool kids, I still crave vulnerability. I want people to know me. I want to know them. So, I signed up to make new friends in my new city on Meetup.com. I voluntarily walk into situations where I know no one and have no idea what it will be like. As painfully awkward as it can be, I find it thrilling that there are other people out their seeking their tribes. If I had the courage, I'd sign up for every group, even ones that don't fit my interest, just to get a glimpse into other people's lives. The writer/reader in me can't mind my own business.
The truth is we are not the sum of our scars and we are not held together by the folds across our hearts. The wrongs we have saved up in our very cells do not protect us. So, it is time to let them go one by one, to take away their sting, and deactivate them.
I used to keep a record of great compliments people had given me. I wrote them on notecards and pinned them on a cork-board as encouragement to buoy me up during times of doubt. But then I just worried about living up to those glowing words. True, today my hair looks nice but tomorrow I may be a mess. One smart statement makes me worry about sounding stupid the next time I open my mouth. It took awhile to realize that I am no more the positive things said about me than I am the negative ones. I, like everyone else in this world, am something so much more than pros or cons.
When I am brave enough to practice, meditation provides me with a place where the ups and downs do not matter. There is something there in the silence – an essential me-ness which needs no excuse nor validation. While what I do in this world may be a small outpouring from that source, it is not me. So, whether my paper self is stomped under foot or laminated and displayed on the wall, I truly exist anchored in eternal love and in that place I am always enough.